STEP welcomes UK government response to Fifth Anti-Money Laundering Directive consultation

Emily Deane TEPUpdate 11 August 2020: It remains unclear exactly when the proposed Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020 will come into force as this is being created by way of a Statutory Instrument, which is subject to the sifting procedure in Parliament. This is a special procedure for EU legislation, and the date on which the regulations will come into force will only become clear once the procedure has been completed.

HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) has confirmed that the date from which new business relationships and acquisitions of land have to be considered as part of the registration requirements under the regulations will be 21 days after the Statutory Instrument has been laid (see para 1(2) of the regulations).

The UK Parliament website shows the regulations as ‘laid’ on 15 July for the purpose of the sifting procedure, however this does not mean they have been ‘laid’ for the purposes of the commencement provisions in para 1(2) of the regulations. This can only happen after the sifting procedure has been completed. We will keep members updated once it is clear when the regulations will come into force.

Original blog: HMRC and HM Treasury (HMT) have published a response to the technical consultation ‘Fifth Money Laundering Directive and Trust Registration Service’. The consultation ran from January to February 2020 and sought views on how the Fifth Money Laundering Directive (5AMLD) should be transposed, and how certain processes could work for the expanded Trust Registration Service (TRS).

STEP submitted a consultation response and has held numerous meetings with HMRC and HMT over the last 18 months, on various issues related to the implementation of 5AMLD.

One of STEP’s outstanding concerns has been in relation to the interpretation of the business relationship point, which could have had an incredibly damaging effect on the use of UK professional service providers if interpreted in the same way as 4AMLD. We have been advising the government on the negative impact that a wide interpretation of the directive could have on the industry, and we are delighted to see that our recommendation has been accepted.

Para 2.15 of the consultation confirms that, ‘the government has opted to take a measured approach and will only require non-UK trusts to register on entering a business relationship with a UK obliged entity if the trust has at least one UK resident trustee. This means that non-UK trusts will not be required to register if their only link to the UK is through a business relationship with a UK based adviser.’

There is also a significant expansion of the categories of trust that will not need to be reported, which will ease the reporting burden on our members, although we were disappointed to note that bare trusts have not been exempted from registration as we would have liked. The government has also recognised that it would not be appropriate to require trusts created by will to register on the TRS if they are wound up within two years of death.

STEP also had concerns over the ‘legitimate interest’ application process, and the consultation confirms that it will aim to ensure that each request will be reviewed on its own merits, and access will be given only where there is evidence of money laundering or terrorist activity. We will continue to engage with the government on this issue.

The government has set a deadline of 10 March 2022 for existing trusts to register on the TRS, or to update their records if they have already done so. A 30-day deadline will be imposed for new trust registrations and updates. The regulations to implement the provisions have now been laid before Parliament for consideration.

We are very pleased that our discussions and papers have been taken into consideration so comprehensively, and we will continue to engage with the government on the remaining policy issues and assist with the development of the guidance.

 

Emily Deane TEP, STEP Technical Counsel

 

The five most common reporting errors for trusts to avoid

HM Revenue & Custom’s (HMRC) compliance team has identified the five most common errors made by UK administered trusts which are Financial Institutions (FIs) when fulfilling their obligations under the International Tax Compliance Regulations 2015.

These obligations relate to Automatic Exchange of Information (AEOI) which includes the Common Reporting Standard (CRS) and the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA). Any errors should be rectified by submitting amendments using an online HMRC AEOI account, or if relating to the FATCA FFI list, an IRS FATCA online account.

1.Trusts wrongly classified for AEOI purposes

A trust can be either a FI or a non-financial entity. A trust will be classified as an FI where more than 50 per cent of its income is from investing, reinvesting, or trading in financial assets, and another FI has discretionary authority to manage these assets wholly or in part. A trust or settlement is regarded as being managed by an FI where either one or more of the trustees is an FI or the trustees have appointed an FI, such as a discretionary fund manager, to manage the trust’s assets or the trust itself. Trusts that are FIs have to register and submit AEOI returns to HMRC if they have reportable accounts. More information.

2.Due diligence requirements incorrectly carried out

Trusts that are FIs must carry out due diligence on their financial accounts to determine whether any are reportable accounts.  For trusts, financial accounts are the debt or equity interests in the trust. The equity interests are deemed to be held by any person treated as a settlor or beneficiary of all or a portion of the trust, or any other person exercising ultimate effective control, including trustees and protectors.

The debt and equity interests of the trust are reportable accounts if they are held by a reportable person. For example, if a settlor or beneficiary is resident in a reportable jurisdiction (outside of the UK), their equity interest is a reportable account.

The trust that is an FI must apply the due diligence rules in order to determine the identity and residence of its debt and equity interest holders. Please see the due diligence rules.

A trust that has reportable accounts must report the account information and the financial activity for the year in respect of each reportable account. The account information includes the identifying information for each reportable person (such as name, address, jurisdiction of residence, taxpayer identification number, date of birth and account number), and the identifying information of the trust (name and identifying number).

3.Mistakes when reporting discretionary beneficiaries and trustees.

A discretionary beneficiary will only be treated as an account holder in the years in which it receives a distribution from the trust. Other reportable accounts are reportable regardless of whether a distribution is made in the calendar year. More information (para 253).

4.Reporting entities as controlling persons.

Where an equity interest (such as the interest held by a settlor, beneficiary or any other natural person exercising ultimate effective control over the trust) is held by an entity, the equity interest holder will instead be its controlling persons. As such, the trust will be required to look through a settlor, trustee, protector or beneficiary that is an entity to locate the relevant controlling persons. (This obligation corresponds to the obligation to identify the beneficial owners of a trust under anti money-laundering rules). More information (para 253).

5.Errors relating to the IRS FATCA Foreign Financial Institution (FFI) list.

A trust that registers on the IRS FATCA registration website as being a FFI, will receive a Global Intermediary Identification Number (GIIN) from the IRS, upon approval. Some UK administered trusts are incorrectly registered on the FFI list, including trusts that do not meet the definition of being an FFI, or that have already been terminated.

Where FFI registration has been approved but is no longer appropriate, the trust should cancel the agreement. Cancelling a registration agreement that is in approved status will mean it will no longer be published on the FFI List and the GIIN will no longer be valid. The FATCA registration user guide contains guidance on deregistration and cancelling the agreement.

 

Emily Deane TEP, STEP Technical Counsel

Update from HMRC’s Trusts and Estates team

HMRC’s Trusts and Estates team met with the Agents Advisory Group and Capital Taxes Liaison Group in May and provided the following updates:

Operational update

Despite the unique challenges presented by the current COVID-19 situation, inheritance tax and trusts operational areas are currently meeting all key targets and processing post and new accounts within published turnaround times.

A new webchat service was launched in May, which can be used to obtain help when completing the IHT400 forms and schedules, and to answer other inheritance tax and probate questions.

HMRC confirmed that IHT421 forms can now be emailed directly from HMRC to HM Courts and Tribunals Service. HMRC is unable to email customers due to security protocols in place, but will either reply in writing, or add a note to the calculations.

There have been periods when the Trusts Helpline call response times have increased. If you are experiencing problems getting through, you can email HMRC at trustsfeedback@hmrc.gov.uk.

Digital signatures for IHT205

HMRC confirms that the digital signature process now applies to IHT205 forms, as well at IHT400 and IHT100 forms, until further notice. It will accept IHT205 forms that are not physically signed from professional agents, if:

  • the names and personal details of the legal personal representatives are shown on the declaration page;
  • the account has been seen by all the legal personal representatives, and they all agree to be bound by the declaration;
  • the agent includes the following statement:
    ‘As the agent acting on behalf, I confirm that all the people whose names appear on the declaration page of this Inheritance Tax Return have both seen the Inheritance Tax Return and agreed to be bound by the declaration on page 8 of the form IHT205.’

The GOV.UK website has been updated to reflect these changes.

Electronic submission of IHT form update

HMRC is offering Dropbox as a temporary measure to support agents when it is not possible or practical to submit IHT400 and IHT100 accounts by post during the COVID-19 disruption.

HMRC retains full ownership of all information/data that it places in Dropbox and all information/data that an agent submits there. Only the HMRC Dropbox account holder and the HMRC security audit team can access the information.

Time limits and penalties for late filing and payment

HMRC has updated the guidance on reasonable excuse to include occasions where customers have not been able to file their accounts on time due to the impact of COVID-19.

Claim time limits for IHT reliefs

HMRC has enquired about deadlines for IHT relief claims that may be impacted by the present disruption customers are facing. The three areas which have been raised are the time limits for: relief on property sales, relief on sale of shares and instruments of variation. HMRC is continuing to monitor the position.

STEP will continue to monitor the developments and update members accordingly.

Emily Deane TEP, STEP Technical Counsel

HMCTS announces interim operational arrangements

emily-deane-tep-2018-v2Update 25 August 2020: HM Courts & Tribunal Service (HMCTS) has provided some further guidance in relation to submitting England and Wales probate applications in the correct format:

  1. If you have lodged an application through the online portal using your registered account you do not need to send any application forms, when you send in the will and other supporting documents. If you send either of the application forms, PA1P or PA1A, this will delay your application. Please only send in the supporting documents requested on the summary page.
  2. Form PA13 is only for use by personal applicants and not to be used by legal professionals. Please lodge the usual lost will affidavit and supporting exhibits. Changes are being made to GOV.UK and form PA13 to show only for use by personal applicants. Using form PA13 will delay your application if you have not provided an affidavit.

More information on on how to apply online is provided here: www.gov.uk/guidance/hmcts-online-services-for-legal-professionals.

Update 11 June 2020: HMCTS has published the attached FAQ document (pdf) for professional users of the Probate Service to support professionals with online applications. HMCRS has confirmed that this is a working document which it intends to continually update as the process continues to evolve.

If you have any feedback on the FAQs please send your comments to policy@org.uk.

Update 1 May 2020: HMCTS met with STEP, the Law Society, SFE and ICAEW this week for its regular Probate Service meeting. The following updates were provided:

  • The combined form is timetabled for approximately two weeks’ time and a formal notification will be provided.
  • Partners who are Executors are now able to make online applications.
  • Trust corporations and others which are currently unable to apply online will be added to the process over the next couple of months.
  • HMRC intends to start sending IHT421 forms directly to the Probate Registry within 15 days of issue. A formal notification will follow when this has been implemented.

We have requested an additional meeting in the next ten days to discuss specific form issues with HMCTS and the Probate Registrar. Please contact us at policy@step.org if you have issues that you would like to be reported.

HMCTS has also enquired whether firms are struggling to get the original wills to the Probate Registry during remote working. Please do let us know if this is the case.

Original blog: HMCTS has announced some interim operational arrangements that it will be making in light of the COVID-19 restrictions. The key changes will relate to the following areas:

  • acceptance of statements of truth in place of affidavits,
  • guidance on the signing/witnessing of renunciations and powers of attorney,
  • Statutory Instrument 2020 No 33: The Administration of Estates Act 1925 (Fixed Net Sum) Order,
  • probate practitioner forms and electronic signatures.

Acceptance of statements of truth in place of affidavits 

Statements of truth can be accepted in place of affidavits in the following circumstances:

  • identity of executor,
  • misrecital of date of will in codicil (if rectification not required under S20 Administration of Justice Act 1982),
  • Rule 41 – amendment of grant,
  • Rule 41 – revocation of grant,
  • Rules 30(1) (a),(b) and (c),
  • Rule 35(4),
  • Rule 13 (knowledge of content of will),
  • Rule 14 (alterations in will),
  • Rule 15 (attempted revocation of will).

HMCTS is awaiting further advice in relation to the acceptance of statements of truth for use in applications that specify evidence must be submitted by affidavit.

Guidance on the signing/witnessing of renunciations and powers of attorney 

Documents including renunciations and powers of attorney that are required to be signed as a deed before a disinterested witness may be effected in the usual way using any method of signing/witnessing that can be achieved under the safe distancing measures currently specified by the government. HMCTS will not look beyond any document that is submitted that is signed and witnessed in the usual way, including the use of electronic signatures.

Statutory Instrument 2020 No 33: The Administration of Estates Act 1925 (Fixed Net Sum) Order 

With effect from 6 February 2020 the fixed net sum for spouses and civil partners of persons who have died after that date without leaving a will has been increased to GBP270,000. If you have been issued with a grant of Letters of Administration since 6 February 2020 and you believe the entitlement to the estate may have been affected by this, you are advised not to administer the estate and, if you are a personal applicant, to seek legal advice.

Probate practitioner forms and electronic signatures 

HMCTS has received queries from practitioners in respect of whether the new forms are for use by practitioners and personal applicants. These forms will become a combined form for use by both at the end of the transitional period and will be uploaded as a combined form on the gov.uk website.

For clarity, the links to all the relevant paper forms for probate professional practitioners only to use are:

You can find where to send your forms at the Directory of probate registries and appointment venues (PA4SOT).

Please note: All forms for practitioner use contain the following statement in the title for probate professional practitioners only. If this statement is not included, the application is only for the use of personal applicants at this stage.

‘HMCTS advises that any new work which is undertaken should now be completed by either using the new paper application forms (electronic signatures including typed signatures will be accepted) or you could alternatively apply online. HMCTS is actively encouraging the use of online applications as this enables us to maintain the service whilst many of our staff are also remote working.’

For further information on how to apply online, please use HMCTS online services for legal professionals.

STEP will continue to keep you apprised of any changes to the service made by HMCTS.

Emily Deane TEP, STEP Technical Counsel

UK government raises statutory legacy in England and Wales

Father and daughter at a beachThe UK government laid a statutory instrument on 15 January 2020, which increases the net sum that a surviving spouse or civil partner is entitled to receive in England and Wales where a person dies intestate leaving issue (children).

The new legacy has been increased from GBP250,000 to GBP270,000, and will come into force on 6 February. The formal title is the Administration of Estates Act 1925 (Fixed Net Sum) Order 2020.

Under the rules of intestacy, if there are no children, then the spouse or civil partner will inherit the whole estate. However, if there are children, then the spouse or civil partner will be entitled to all of the deceased’s personal property, the first GBP270,000 of the estate and 50 per cent of the remainder, leaving 50 per cent to be divided equally between the children.

How was the calculation made?

The government reviews the amount of the statutory legacy every five years and increases it in line with the Consumer Price Index.

When calculating the increase, the Lord Chancellor followed the standard methodology in Schedule 1A to the 1925 Act (following the amendments brought in by the Inheritance and Trustees’ Powers Act 2014). This involved calculating and then applying the change in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) from the ‘base month’ (October 2014) to the ‘current month’ – the most recent CPI figure available at the time of fixing the sum (November 2019, published by the Office for National Statistics on 18 December 2019). This equated to an increase of 8.1 per cent of the GBP250,000 sum, with the figure then rounded to the nearest thousand (as required by the Act), which resulted in the increase of GBP20,000.

STEP welcomes the increase to the fixed legacy, although we would caution that it is prudent not to rely on the rules of intestacy, and to make and review a will regularly.

Emily Deane TEP, STEP Technical Counsel

Progress on UK probate delays

Emily Deane TEP

Updated 24 March 2020: HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) has launched new standard application forms for professional practitioners.

Three of the grant of representation forms have been redesigned for the professional sector. These are the PA1A (applying for grant of letters of administration), PA1P (applying for a grant of probate) and PA8A (applying for a caveat). These forms need to be completed in place of the Statement of Truth, and can be accessed from Probate forms and guidance.

If you want to apply for a grant of representation or caveat online, please visit HMCTS online services for legal professionals.

HMCTS is encouraging everyone to apply online so that HMCTS can continue to work remotely on the applications.

Updated 10 March 2020: It is now possible to make an online application for a Welsh grant via: A oes gennych chi dystysgrif marwolaeth?

Updated 14 February 2020: HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) is now issuing new grants within two weeks of all professional online or paper applications for England and Wales.

HMCTS has requested feedback from professionals who have used the new online system. It has registered approximately 1,000 online applications since the launch and is urging other professionals to sign up.

STEP has relayed the message to HMCTS that some emails and calls are still going unanswered.

Updated 2 December 2019: STEP met HMCTS this week, together with The Law Society, and the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales.

HMTCS provided the following update on the Probate Service:

Timeframe

For personal applications HMCTS is now issuing grants in less than four weeks.

For professional applications grants are being issued within two to three weeks.

HMCTS issued 11,390 grants in the first two weeks of November.

HMCTS has identified that 16 per cent of stops are caused by a pending IHT421 and 11 per cent of stops are due to a missing death certificate.

The new online system will help to identify the reasons for other stops in due course.

Online system

HMCTS is promoting the use of its online system and is keen to see increased professional uptake. It is also looking at introducing a new paper form in the new year. Once introduced there will a transitional period to enable firms to implement.

The online service for Welsh applications will be implemented in the new year.

Customer Service

From 2 December 2019 the CTSC customer service centre will be open from 8am-8pm Monday-Friday and from 8am-2pm on Saturday.

If you continue to have issues with a probate application please contact HMCTS by email: probatefeedback@justice.gov.uk

Alternatively, contact STEP’s Policy Team and we will direct you to someone at CTSC who can assist.

STEP will continue to meet with HMCTS regularly next year to discuss future changes to the service and feedback from the industry.

Emily Deane TEP, STEP Technical Counsel

STEP attends Global Tax Advisers Platform conference in Turin

Emily Deane TEPSTEP attended the Global Tax Advisers Platform (GTAP)’s inaugural conference ‘Tax & the Future’ in Turin, Italy last week, alongside many leading European tax advisors. The event was hosted by the foundation of Confédération Fiscale Européenne (CFE) Tax Advisers Europe, which was celebrating its 60th anniversary (press release).

The GTAP was set up by the founding organisations, CFE, Asia Oceania Tax Consultants’ Association (AOTCA) and West African Union of Tax Institutes (WAUTI) in 2014 to facilitate networking links and enhanced dialogue between tax advisors throughout the world. Panel experts, including STEP’s Deputy Chair, David Russell QC TEP discussed a variety of prominent global issues including the future of global tax policy, the longevity of the global tax profession and business models and tax sustainability.

During the conference, the founding bodies of the GTAP signed the Torino-Busan Declaration, a binding document in which they define their main purposes: shaping the contemporaneous developments in the field of global taxation and ensuring the fair and efficient operations of national and international tax systems. GTAP sets out four key short-term priorities in the Declaration which include a focus on tax for growth, sustainable tax policies, tax and digitalisation and taxpayers’ rights and certainty in a fast-paced world.

The objective of the Declaration is to regroup the joint efforts of the GTAP members around these priorities, in order to draw attention on the need for recognition of the rights and interests of taxpayers, and the role of tax professionals.

STEP was a signatory to the Declaration and continues to promote the fair and efficient operation of national and international tax systems. A copy of the Declaration will be available on the CFE website in due course.

Emily Deane TEP, STEP Technical Counsel

EW probate delays: September update

Emily Deane TEPUpdate 21 November: HM Courts & Tribunal Service (HMCTS) has announced this week that all legal professionals’ probate calls have been centralised and are now dealt with by the Birmingham Courts and Tribunals Service Centre (CTSC). You will no longer be required to contact a local registry if you need an update on your client’s applications.

The CTSC will be able to confirm whether the application has been received, where the application is being processed, the current service level, when it expects the grant to be issued and whether a ‘stop’ is in place and the reason for it. HMCTS anticipates that the new process will allow the Registry staff resource to process your paper applications more efficiently.

The Probate CTSC helpline number is 0300 303 0648 and is open Monday to Friday from 9.30am to 5pm.

Update 22 October: HMCTS has confirmed legal professionals and personal applicants will be able to call the Birmingham CTCS from 4 November for an update on any application in England and Wales, provided it has been uploaded to its system.

The CTSC will be able to confirm:

  • if the application has been received;
  • where it is being dealt with;
  • the current level of service in that registry;
  • when its expects the grant to be issued;
  • whether a ‘stop’ is in place.

This information will be passed to the registry which will contact the legal professional/applicant directly.

HMCTS hopes to have the staff resource to open the Birmingham CTCS Monday to Friday from 8am to 8pm, and on Saturday mornings from 8am to 2pm.

Contact details for this service will be available shortly.

In the meantime, please email probatefeedback@justice.gov.uk for queries rather than contacting individual probate registries.

Update 10 October: STEP met HMCTS at its Birmingham office yesterday where a few key points were made:

  • HMCTS is now issuing almost 7,000 grants a week.
  • It is inputting information received within three days.
  • It has confirmed that the Birmingham CTCS office can be called for an update on any application in England and Wales. It has a proper telephony system, and an agent will always answer a call and have access to the central system.
  • If members use the new online service, they will be notified by email if there are any issues, rather than by post. This may accelerate the speed of their application moving forwards.
  • HMCTS hopes to have the staffing resources to open the Birmingham CTCS office on Saturdays from 8am-8pm shortly.

Original blog 10 September: STEP met HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) this week, together with The Law Society, the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, and Solicitors for the Elderly, to obtain an update on the delays and disruption to the Probate Service in England and Wales.

HMCTS gave us the following update on work undertaken since our last meeting on 27 June.

Timescales

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

It has processed 98,000 grants since April and has a backlog of applications from March.

It has increased staffing levels by 20 per cent.

It is striving to get back to its pre-March level of service, which was a 28-day turnaround for personal applicants and ten days for professional applicants.

It acknowledges that performance has not been acceptable but anticipates that delays will reduce over the coming weeks.

Stops/errors

HMCTS estimates that approximately 20 per cent of applications from professionals, and 25 per cent of personal applications need to be stopped for a variety of reasons. The most frequent problems are thought to be:

  • the IHT421 form has not yet been received;
  • not all executors have been accounted for;
  • the will has not been included;
  • names are spelt incorrectly; and
  • the forms have not been correctly signed.

The new online system (see below) will be able to more accurately identify the reasons for the stops and it is hoped this feedback will lead to fewer delays and a more streamlined process.

It is worth noting that when an application is stopped it takes some time for the registry to reconnect the paperwork. 

New system

The new online application system for professionals is due to be introduced by the end of October. Users will be able to register their organisation on the website, with no need for an invitation from the registry.

Each organisation will have a single login, to include all those using the service. Organisations will be able to suspend or terminate a person’s access if they are no longer using it.

Once registered, details of applications will be uploaded within 24 hours.

All of the main types of application will be available at launch, although some of the less frequently-used applications make take longer.

Key messages

HMCTS is encouraging registry staff to communicate via email, rather than post.

The digital pilot will be transferred in early October and launched by the end of the month.

HMCTS’ eventual aim is to digitally interact with HMRC on future applications, to reduce the delays and complications of paper trails.

The implementation of the new probate fee regime is not high on the political agenda, due to continued disruption and the prorogation of parliament.

HMCTS continues to apologise for poor service.

Emily Deane TEP, STEP Technical Counsel

EW probate delays and disruption: an update

Emily Deane TEPSTEP met HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) this week, together with The Law Society and Solicitors for the Elderly, to obtain an update on the delays and disruption to the Probate Service in England and Wales.

HMCTS gave us the following update on work undertaken since our last meeting on 14 May:

  • It has taken on 30 new staff since the transfer to the new system.
  • It currently has 180 employees working across the Probate Service.
  • It has recruited additional legal advisors with probate experience.
  • The registry with the most significant backlog is Winchester, which is sharing its work with other registries.
  • HMCTS is issuing approximately 20,000 grants a month, of which 12-13,000 are from practitioners
  • It is dealing with grants in date order, oldest first.
  • It does not prioritise grants according to urgency, and will not deal with applications more quickly by request.
  • It is entering caveats into the system on the day of receipt.
  • It will not refund probate fees due to delay.
  • It will issue grants of probate in approximately six to eight weeks.

STEP’s request for waived interest, or longer timeframe

STEP is aware that the delays are making it difficult for members to pay IHT on estates, since they cannot gain access to funds until the grants have been issued.

STEP has asked HMCTS to consult with HMRC on this issue, to see if it will waive the interest accrued on outstanding IHT, or permit a longer timeframe for paying by instalments. We stressed that this would help ease some of the time pressure and negligence concerns of our members, and generate some much-needed goodwill.

HMCTS anticipates that once its new digital system is up and running, there will be less scope for administrative and human error. Users will be able to track applications and make corrections online.

It will continue to accept paper applications for those less able to deal with applying online.

  • HMCTS is holding a webinar to demonstrate the new online system for professional users on 4 July.

STEP will be meeting HMCTS again in August for a further briefing.

Emily Deane TEP, STEP Technical Counsel

STEP meets HMCTS to discuss EW probate delays

Emily Deane TEPSTEP met HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) this week to discuss the backlog of applications and continued disruption to the Probate Service.

HMCTS representatives explained its old database needed to be upgraded, which had prompted the decision to move to digital software. The new system was scheduled to go live in January but was delayed until 25 March following technical glitches. HMCTS explained that it had not anticipated this level of issues with the technology, in conjunction with such a high spike in probate applications.

The following points were raised:

  • HMCTS has brought in 15-20 more people for the national office; a 10-15 per cent increase in those working on the backlogged applications.
  • The remaining probate registries will be closed over the next 12 months. Staff will be given six months’ notice and HMCTS expects to help them all find other roles in the civil service.
  • The new digital system is being delivered from the Courts and Tribunals Service centre based in Birmingham. HMCTS is keen to get more solicitors using the digital pilot, and will be looking for volunteers shortly. This pilot will enable solicitors to issue up to 250 applications per week.
  • Cases are taking up to 30 working days to be processed at the moment.
  • The Probate Registry will publish regular bulletins to improve communication with the public.
  • HMCTS assures users its existing Registry staff are working hard to get through the applications, and issued 960 grants on a single day this week.
  • HMCTS requests users not to chase applications, as they are being dealt with by date order.
  • HMCTS is currently up to date with caveats.

STEP expressed its disappointment that the court service was not better equipped to deal with the spike in applications. The Ministry of Justice had issued reassurances earlier this year that the court service was prepared for an increase due to the proposed increase in probate fees. STEP noted HMCTS was ill prepared to merge the new online system, change the format of the certificate, close registries and cut staff all at once. 

STEP repeated its suggestion that HMCTS should change the fee implementation date to the date of death for applications, to relieve the pressure and generate some goodwill amongst the industry and the public. The idea should be seriously considered, given pressure on practitioners and members of the public is considerable, and is causing a great deal of anxiety. 

STEP has also provided feedback to HMCTS on errors in the new-style grants that members have received, together with feedback on how they could be improved. We have explained why the will should continue to be annexed to the grant of probate, and the difficulties caused if it is not.

The Statutory Instrument to increase probate fees is still waiting to be scheduled for approval in parliament, and we will continue to monitor and report any developments (latest update).

Emily Deane TEP, STEP Technical Counsel