Progress on UK probate delays

Emily Deane TEPUpdated 2 December 2019: STEP met HM Courts & Tribunals Service (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

Online probate applications update – Oct 2019

Rita Bhargava TEPHM Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS) recently organised a focus group, attended by practitioners from across the industry and representatives of various professional bodies, as part of its ongoing changes to the rules and processes around probate applications in England and Wales.

As Deputy Chair of STEP’s England and Wales Regional Committee, I attended the meeting on behalf of STEP.

As part of the meeting, representatives of HMCTS confirmed that the new online probate application process was scheduled to go live today, 1 October 2019. At present the system will be unavailable for more complicated applications, for example where the deceased was domiciled outside the UK or where an executor has lost capacity.

Practitioners who do use the online system will benefit from increased transparency around the status of their application; with a dashboard function tracking the progress of an application and showing which stages it has completed.

During the meeting a number of other key points were raised that practitioners may find of interest:

  • All law firms will have to apply to use the new online service, with applications being approved by HMCTS.
  • Practitioners will still be able to make paper applications. There will not be a specific time advantage to using one method over the other, as both paper and online applications will be progressed under the same timeframes.
  • HMCTS representatives have provided the reassurance that as part of the new system the original will is still going be ‘forensically’ checked by two officials.
  • When an application is made for a grant, a sealed copy of the will won’t be provided unless specifically requested. This will incur an additional charge.
  • All paper applications must now be sent via recorded delivery.

STEP will continue to monitor the changes to the Probate Service (as well as the ongoing situation around probate fees), and will provide further updates where appropriate.

Rita Bhargava TEP is deputy chair of STEP’s England and Wales Regional Committee

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

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