Court reform

Probate service update – March 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 (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 January 2022 meeting

Workload and timeliness

In the latest management information, the January figures for probate service performance show the total applications received was 23,572 while the number of grants issued was 22,759.

From submission to grant issued:

  • digital applications took 15.8 weeks when stopped and 4.2 weeks without stops
  • paper applications took 21.5 weeks when stopped and 9.8 weeks without stops

HMCTS consistently receives a higher than average number of applications, which is hindering plans to reduce the backlog. However, it confirmed that the backlog isn’t growing.

Over the last five months, HMCTS switched focus to balance resources between new applications and stopped cases.

Applicants who were having their applications stopped were waiting longer than people who didn’t have to be stopped.

This would indicate that waiting times have gone up, but overall HMCTS states these are performing at a similar level.

HMCTS expects the high demand to decline around the end of May. Resources are being kept at elevated levels and HMCTS states it is keeping on top of receipts.

Yearly figures for 2021 are now available and show the level of grants issued is the second highest in the last 10 years, and 17,000 more than in 2020.

Addressing ‘stopped’ cases

Stops continue to be an ongoing issue in terms of the amount of time and effort needed to stop and re-examine applications.

HMCTS is keen to drive the number of stopped cases down. Reducing the need to stop an application will release more capacity for the service, and therefore improve timeliness.

The main reasons for stopped applications:

  • inheritance tax (IHT) – applying to HMCTS and HMRC at the same time, and HMCTS not being able to do anything with the application until the 20 working days has passed
  • not accounting for all the executors – HMCTS has to ask the questions and cannot let it go through without following it up
  • condition of the will – HMCTS encourages explanations up front if the will appears like it has had pages removed or unexplained staple holes

HMCTS is reviewing the three main stops and looking at further changes to its IT systems to reduce these stops.

Recently IT releases overtly ask citizens and legal professionals to explain the condition of the will and account for executors.

HMCTS is hopeful that this, combined with the information in its blog focusing on what's causing the most stops, will result in reduced stops.

Since July 2021, HMCTS states that it:

  • significantly reduced the number of stops outstanding with evidence
  • is maintaining these reduced levels, in terms of timeliness and driving them down further, by ensuring relevant resource focuses on stops on a daily basis

HMCTS accepts that there’s more to do for paper applications, which are the most complex.

Bringing down paper application volumes and paper stops are a priority in the probate registries dealing with these.

Your feedback on 'stops'

Members have expressed concern about applications stopped in error going to the back of the queue.

HMCTS confirmed that if you get in touch because you believe an application has been stopped inappropriately or you have provided information that HMCTS has missed (for instance, a will condition comment within your notes), it will put the application to the front of the queue and get an examiner to review it on the day.

If you’re contacting to resolve a stop, these are dealt with based on the date of application (oldest first).

HMCTS confirmed multiple stops shouldn’t be happening, unless the reply to the stop is insufficient.

HMCTS has produced a number of internal measures it wants to improve on, including the number of times it can re-stop a case after it's been stopped once.

It intends to share these measures at the next user group meeting.

How you can help reduce stops

Read and share the blog focusing on what's causing the most stops.

If IHT needs to be paid:

  • send the IHT400 and IHT421 form to HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) – HMRC will not return the IHT421 to you (this is sent directly to HMCTS)
  • wait 20 working days before applying for the grant through MyHMCTS

Applying for the grant

When you apply:

  • you’ll be asked to enter the IHT form submission date
  • you will not be able to submit your application if you have not waited 20 days
  • do not alter the submission date in the belief that this will accelerate the time an application will be dealt with

If you do not wait 20 working days or alter the submission date, there is a high risk your application will be delayed, and a stop created.

Onboarding of new staff

HMCTS is routinely onboarding staff to train on contact.

It's found that by providing the grounding on the contact and the core probate knowledge, this enables staff to move them on to the basic probate journeys.

Staff have to go through a formal qualification period to issue a grant of probate.

HMCTS will continue to look for opportunities to boost its examining numbers to continue the flow of application numbers going through.

It anticipates intake to be high over the coming months and routinely brings people on board every four weeks to maintain the levels.

HMCTS is still balancing between addressing contact (through calls and webchat) with examining.

Examining must be the priority in terms of the disposals, as that is what causes contact about timeliness and stops.

Call handling and webchat

HMCTS indicated that there’s been a slight increase in the average speed of answer, due to an increase in calls about the ‘find a will’ service and enquiries relating to excepted estates.

HMCTS aims to improve the service and resume the level seen in the latter part of 2021 of less than 10 minutes average speed of answer.

It would like to test increasing the amount of resource on webchat and whether to signpost more people to use this for certain types of scenarios and questions.

Its messaging already signposts pre-application queries to webchat.

HMCTS knows the peaks and times of when people are likely to call and boosts the numbers available to answer these.

Monday is always the busiest day and HMCTS encourages users to contact on different days and times.

Next steps

We’re due to have our next meeting in May.

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

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