Court reform

Probate service update – November 2021

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.

Person signing legal document

We had a productive probate service user group meeting with:

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

We last met in June where it was agreed we would leave some time before our next meeting to allow for the improvements to MyHMCTS to take effect.

Performance and timeliness

We discussed the recently published management information (MI), which is used for understanding workload volumes and timeliness at a national level.

The August figures for probate service performance show the total applications received was 20,989 whilst the number of grants issued was 25,720 (a higher number issued than any previous month).

Digital applications accounted for around 75% of all applications, with the number of digital grants issued increasing from previous months, to over 18,500.

Addressing 'stopped' cases

Timeliness is still a problem, with the average application issue time just under nine weeks. The MI shows applications with stops can take 18 weeks to clear.

HMCTS told us it had anticipated timeliness being impacted through July and August. The reason for this was it was focusing on addressing stopped cases, particularly the older cases in the system.

HMCTS mobilised all its skilled probate examiners to analyse the 'stops with evidence'.

While this resulted in delays with processing new applications, HMCTS has been able to significantly reduce its outstanding stops caseload for applications that have evidence attached.

Take a look at the full data set

You can view statistics on activity in the Family Courts of England and Wales, covering the probate service. The statistics provide figures for the latest quarter (April to June 2021)

Pre-COVID levels

HMCTS has assured us that it's continuing to focus on getting numbers down.

By mid-December, it has committed to getting to the pre-COVID level of outstanding work, and has indicated that it's on track to meet this.

Beyond this, its aim will be to gradually return to the normal active case load of three to four weeks intake by March 2022, which will also reduce the time periods.

Caveat: HMCTS is cautious of the impact of the winter period, which it's closely monitoring (that is, COVID Plan B). It's also keeping a close eye on any additional impact on the normal flu levels, and whether that generates higher than what it profiles in terms of applications coming in.

Increase in staff

Between now and the end of December, HMCTS is retraining and onboarding more staff to the probate service.

The reason for this is: not only does HMCTS want to get to the pre-COVID level as planned by mid-December, it wants to drive down the outstanding case load even further to reach what it regards as a three-to-four week intake by the end of the financial year.

Call response times

Our members raised issues about response times when contacting the probate service by phone.

In October, HMCTS answered the majority of calls at an average speed of seven minutes. In comparison, the average answering speed was 40 minutes in February.

Its aim is to keep the call response time to under 10 minutes.

HMCTS confirmed stops continue to be the main issue it's contacted about.

How you can help reduce 'stops'

  1. If inheritance tax needs to be paid, send the completed IHT400 and IHT421 forms to HMRC. You should then allow 20 working days to pass before applying for the grant on MyHMCTS – if you apply sooner, you risk a delay while HMCTS waits for the completed IHT421 to be received from HMRC
  2. When applying for probate, if the will or codicil appears to have been changed or damaged, please use the notes field on MyHMCTS to let HMCTS know what has happened. Wills are legal documents and damage, no matter how small, must be noted. Common types of damage include rips, tears, staple or punch holes and water damage. Noting damage on MyHMCTS can avoid unnecessary delays to the grant of applications
  3. Remember that you can check the status of your applications at any time using the MyHMCTS dashboard

Read the HMCTS guidance on how to check the progress of your cases

Improvements to the online system

In August, HMCTS made improvements to MyHMCTS for probate practitioners, which it says have been well received.

According to the team dealing with trust corporation applications, early indications suggest the correct information is being received, thereby reducing stops caused by having to request more information.

The format of information that now comes through is making the examination process more efficient and straight forward. This is having a positive impact in terms of issuing the grants.

Exempt estates

The Inheritance Tax (Delivery of Accounts) (Excepted Estates) (Amendment) Regulations 2021 have been amended to exempt more estates from the need to submit detailed estate returns as a condition of obtaining probate.

HMCTS has confirmed that it will be updating the digital and paper journeys to capture the information that HMRC requires from a practitioner, in line with these amendments.

This will be the same information that is currently collected on the IHT 205.

The digital journey and paper form will have relevant boxes to complete, including the usual gross and net figures for probate, as well as a gross and net figure for inheritance tax purposes.

Necessary updates will be made to the IHT pages on the PA1A and PA1P forms which will be accessible from 1 January 2022.

Updates to the digital journey will mean that when you enter the date of death after 1 January 2022, the system will generate the extra questions that need to be answered.

HMRC will also have a checker tool which gives estimated figures for inheritance tax, and there’ll be guidance on how the user works out the figures.

HMCTS will share further information on these changes shortly.

Proposed fee increase

In September, the government consulted on whether to align the fees for grants of probate to cost recovery.

The proposed changes would set a single fee of £273 for professional and non-professional probate applicants, regardless of the size of the estate.

Read our response

The government response is currently with ministers. We’ll keep members updated on its progress.

Next steps

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

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