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

OTS report supports STEP’s calls for simplification

Simon HodgesThe UK Office of Tax Simplification (OTS) has published its first report of its review into inheritance tax (IHT).  The report, in which STEP is widely quoted, finds that the process for completing IHT forms is too complex and old fashioned, and that too many people are having to fill them in unnecessarily.

The OTS is undertaking this two-part review of IHT in response to the request from the Chancellor of the Exchequer in January 2018. Since the review was announced, STEP has been in regular contact with the OTS. STEP’s response to the consultation was one of more than 3,500 to be submitted to the OTS, with the overwhelming majority seemingly negative about the IHT process.

The report concentrates on the concerns and administrative issues facing the public and professional advisors when confronted with the IHT process and related forms. It includes a number of positive recommendations, such as potentially reducing or removing the requirement to submit forms for smaller or simpler estates, especially where there is no tax to pay; having standardised requirements; and automating the system by bringing it online.

STEP has long argued that the IHT system is too complex, and that any moves to simplify the process, particularly through the implementation of a digital system, will be beneficial for bereaved families.

The Chancellor will now review the OTS recommendations before deciding whether to implement or ignore them. The key recommendation from the OTS, that ‘The government should implement a fully integrated digital system for inheritance tax, ideally including the ability to complete and submit a probate application,’ will be the mostly keenly watched, not least by STEP members.

As the report notes, inheritance tax and probate are closely linked, so it is timely that the OTS recommends that HMRC and HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) liaise on streamlining the payment and probate process. As has been widely reported, legislation currently before the UK parliament would see a radical change to the probate fee system in England and Wales, and will mean an increase in fees for the vast majority of families. This approach has already been criticised in the House of Lords, and this latest OTS report further highlights the need to simplify the tax system surrounding death, rather than complicate it further.

We will keep members updated.

Simon Hodges is Director of Policy at STEP