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Law Society seeks clarity around probate delays

11 September 2019

We met with HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) for an update on the delays to the probate service. We had some productive discussions, which we hope will help to improve the current situation.

Following our last meeting, we asked you for examples of delays that go beyond the six-to-eight week timeframe as stated by HMCTS.

This was to gain insight to the extent of the delays and the impact these are having on our members and their clients.

From this, common recurring themes emerged:

  • lack of communication
  • errors made by HMCTS
  • property transactions impacted
  • financial pressures

We put these to HMCTS who acknowledged the issues and apologised to the profession and their clients.

Timescales

HMCTS is receiving 700-800 applications a day from professional and personal applicants.

An exact timescale as to when the delays are likely to stop cannot be given.

In terms of the bulk of the work, HMCTS state that the delays are around six to seven weeks.

They are working to further reduce this in order to return to an acceptable level of service, which they are instructed should reflect pre-March levels:

  • 10 working days for solicitors
  • 28 working days for personal applicants

If you continue to experience delays that go beyond the six- to seven-week timeframe, email the probate feedback inbox about your case.

Resources

The 20% increase in resource was initially brought in to deal with the increase of applications and putting paper applications onto the new system, which we are told HMCTS is now up to date with.

The challenge now sits at the quality assurance and final issue of grant stage.

HMCTS have processed 98,000 grants since April this year and have a backlog of applications from March. These need to be dealt with by people who have the appropriate skill/experience.

They have brought in an additional three legal advisers to support the quality assurance work, with a further twenty legal advisers volunteering to do overtime.

HMCTS believe this combined effort should help with getting through the backlogs.

Stops

There was some alarm raised with a recent Law Society Gazette article, which set out the implication that “solicitors are partly to blame for the delays” following a reference to “stops” in a blog published by HMCTS.

HMCTS disagree with the article's interpretation of their blog and clarified that they do not blame solicitors and are not seeking to avoid responsibility.

They assure us that they wanted to use “stops” as a way of explaining why the delays might appear to be longer.

We are told the new system provides indicators as to why stops may be occurring – some of these include:

  • executors not being accounted for
  • applicants and the deceased’s names being spelt incorrectly
  • the will not being included
  • waiting for IHT forms

HMCTS are looking at solutions for the present problems connected to IHT forms where some of the delays relate to matching IHT421 forms that come in separately.

Going forward, their intention is to digitally interact with HMRC which they hope will reduce future delays.

Ian Bond, chair of the Wills and Equity committee, previously wrote an article which includes common errors in applications – HMCTS confirms this content is still very relevant.

Communications

We reiterated a key concern relating to communications from local registries where many of our members and their clients are experiencing difficulties in establishing an update on the status of an application.

HMCTS accept that the reason for an increase in the number of calls is due to the backlogs and they are working with management teams to improve their response levels.

Online service

HMCTS have been testing an online service for legal professionals and believe they will be in a position to release the next stage of the digital pilot at the end of this month with a view to enabling all practitioners to use this by the end of October.

Once registered, each organisation will have a single login and details of applications will be uploaded within 24 hours.

While we agree this system should improve the speed of service, we:

  • voiced caution that when this is fully rolled out there is potential for another surge in applications now that government’s proposal to increase probate fees has lapsed
  • ask HMCTS to have sufficient plans in place to deal with this

What we’re doing

Going forward, we have asked HMCTS to:

  • provide an update on how they will treat stops in the future
  • give updates on the steps being taken to address the comms issues at local registries
  • keep us informed on their discussions with HMRC

We will continue to engage with HMCTS to improve the probate service.

They have invited us to attend the Birmingham Courts and Tribunals Service Centre for our next review meeting in October.

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