Court reform

Probate service update – January 2022

We summarise an update from HM Courts and Tribunals Service and other members of the probate service user group, regarding timeliness, stopped applications and upcoming changes.

Two people completing paperwork together over desk

We had a productive probate service user group meeting with:

  • HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS)
  • STEP (Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners)
  • Solicitors for the Elderly (SFE)
  • Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales
  • Institute of Legacy Management

Take a look at our update from the November 2021 meeting

Understanding workload and timeliness

HMCTS publishes the management information it uses to understand workload volumes and timeliness at a national level.

In its latest issue, the December figures for probate service performance show the total applications received was 18,275 while the number of grants issued was 19,202.

From submission to grant issued:

  • digital applications took 15.4 weeks when stopped, and 3.9 weeks without stops
  • paper applications took 21.6 weeks when stopped, and 8.4 weeks without stops

We asked:

  • if HMCTS anticipates that the removal of the IHT 205 form would result in more citizen applications
  • what impact this could have on performance

This is something it had not considered but HMCTS will look into.

Staff and resourcing

Understandably, the actual intake of applications through the pandemic has increased.

HMCTS is taking steps to future-proof the staff it has to make sure it meets demands especially during peak periods.

It had employed a significant number of temporary staff and would like to make these permanent.

Pre-COVID levels

In our previous meeting, HMCTS stated that it was aiming to get to the pre-COVID level of outstanding work by mid-December.

However, it did attach the caveat that this would be dependent on the impact of the winter period and whether that generated higher than it profiled in terms of applications coming in.

HMCTS did not achieve the pre-COVID level target due to:

  • one intake through October – December being higher than forecast
  • focused activity at the end of September and mid-December on stops with evidence to reduce the more complex and aged cases

Its current focus is on:

  • reducing the timeliness of paper applications that are still coming into the registry, which are more complex
  • driving new application volumes down throughout February
  • an increase in intestacy applications (over the pandemic period) which has required specialist staff to deal with these
  • ensuring the growth of specialist intestacy knowledge across a broader group of staff

Wait times and answer rate

Through the last quarter (October to December 2021) there was an accelerated answer rate mirrored by a reduced abandonment rate.

The average wait time was eight minutes, compared to a peak of 40 minutes earlier in 2021.

HMCTS did say that it was experiencing the normal January peak of contact following the Christmas period, and therefore the average speed of answer had increased.

It expected this to recover during February and resume the performance experienced pre-Christmas.

In addition, HMCTS had to move staff from other services or onboard new/temporary staff to be trained for contact, which has seen a varied level of knowledge and experience.

HMCTS assured us that this staff has the support of more experienced staff when necessary.

Flat rate probate fee

In December 2021, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) announced that all users of the probate service will pay a single, flat rate fee of £273.

The MoJ will continue to waive probate fees altogether for estates worth £5,000 and under.

In our response to the consultation, we suggested users should be offered reimbursement for delays. The MoJ acknowledged this but did not confirm if it’s something it will incorporate.

We’ve asked HMCTS to follow up on this.

Read our press release

The new fees came into effect on 26 January 2022.

The online portal and guidance have been updated to reflect the fee change.

For paper applications submitted before 26 January, HMCTS stated that there would be some discretion to charge the old fee, for example if there were post delays. These would be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

HMCTS stated it had seen an increase in applications, particularly in digital applications, before the fee increase came into effect. HMCTS confirmed that it had already built this into the January intake forecast.

Sending online evidence to the right address

HMCTS has noticed that some practitioner applications being made online are then sending evidence to Newcastle registry rather than to Harlow.

All evidence to support an online application should be sent to Harlow for scanning in.

Do not send a paper/hard copy of the application with the documents as this causes duplicates.

Only solicitor paper applications, which cannot follow the online journey can be sent to Newcastle Registry or Cardiff for Welsh language applications:

  • Newcastle District Probate Registry, 2nd Floor, Kings Court, Earl Grey Way, North Shields NE29 6AR
  • Probate Registry of Wales, 3rd Floor, Cardiff Magistrates Court, Fitzalan Place, Cardiff CF24 0RZ

Addressing ‘stopped’ cases

HMCTS reduced stops from September to December.

Measures are being developed to maintain this progress, focusing on:

  • reducing timeliness
  • having additional checks and assurances in place the first time an application is examined and stopped
  • post-grant issue checks

Knowledge transfer between the registry staff and Courts and Tribunals Service Centre (CTSC) staff is taking place to make sure they’re stopping for the right reasons and spotting everything.

HMCTS has published a blog focusing on what’s causing the most stops.

For probate practitioners, common reasons for stopped applications include:

  • extra documents required and reminders needed to be sent out
  • executor not being accounted for – main reason appears to be associated with accounting for any pre-deceased executors. HMCTS is improving the text on the online system to address this
  • will condition – whether there is any damage to the will, for example pages missing. HMCTS is making updates to include questions related to damage and enable an explanation to be provided
  • content of the will, for example if it has not been signed

Next steps

We are due to have our next meeting in March.

If you have any queries about the probate service that you would like us to raise with HMCTS, email hmctscourtreform@lawsociety.org.uk.

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