Addressing challenges and proposing solutions: Insights from the Probate Registry Inquiry

The ongoing inquiry into the Probate Registry by the Justice Committee has brought to light a series of challenges and potential solutions, as discussed by representatives from various professional bodies. With the aim of enhancing the resilience and efficiency of the Probate Registry, MPs delved into different proposals and suggestions put forth by regulators and representative bodies.

During the session, key witnesses including Ian Bond, Chair of the Law Society’s Wills and Equity Committee, Sophie Wales from the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, Mark Walley, CEO of the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (STEP), and Stephen Ward, Director of Strategy and External Relations at the Council for Licensed Conveyancers, shared their insights and recommendations.

One of the central themes of the discussion revolved around the need to improve output and advice within the Probate Registry. Stephen Ward highlighted the importance of strategic engagement and stated the value of incorporating expertise from various sectors, including the legal and financial industries.

Ian Bond raised concerns about the outdated probate rules, dating back to 1987, and emphasised the necessity of revising these rules to align with modern practices. He said that “the whole process is right but execution is poor,” attributing challenges not to the individuals involved but to past decisions.

What’s more, the discussion touched upon the necessity of digitalisation and centralisation of the probate process. Ian Bond referenced the Probate Modernisation Project initiated in 2009, highlighting the need for collaborative efforts to update the rules. Mark Walley, CEO of STEP said:

“Over time, the probate registry service has deteriorated significantly. While improvements have been made in recent months, we’re concerned about the sustainability of these improvements. The level of experience and competence in the increased number of staff is still very mixed. Service levels are still nowhere near where they used to be. Applications are still taking, on average, over 13 weeks, up to 9 months in some cases, nor are telephone calls and emails being responded to in a timely manner.

Registry advice is not to contact them regarding an application until after 16 weeks. No other service exists where you cannot ask a question about a submission for four months. On top of that, the fee has increased.

This is unacceptable. Not only is it causing emotional distress, but also financial hardship for some families having to take out loans for estate debts or losing house sales due to delays. Ultimately, it is for them that this needs to improve.”

Sophie Wales stated the importance of communication and managing expectations, suggesting simple measures to streamline processes. She stressed the need for better communication channels, ensuring that individuals can easily access information and support within reasonable timeframes. Concluding on the discussion, she said:

“We’re grateful for the committee’s attention on this issue and for the opportunity to set out solutions to this ongoing problem. There have been signs of improvement in the performance of the Probate Office but further improvements are necessary to ensure bereaved families have access to a properly functioning system.

It’s important that bereaved families don’t suffer financial hardship as a result of delays and we hope this will be considered.”

As the discussion drew to a close, the focus shifted towards addressing short-term challenges, making the system future-proof, and mitigating the impact of delays on individuals. Ian Bond reiterated the significance of effective communication and standardised processes, emphasising the lessons learned from the challenges faced within the probate system – stating that it is a “sad thing it had to happen with probate”.

The inquiry into the Probate Registry has shed light on the complexities and shortcomings of the current system, while also presenting opportunities for improvement. Law Society president Nick Emmerson said:

“Delays to the probate service can adversely impact families during a difficult time, as they deal with the loss of their loved one. We are aware of significant delays to the probate service. In 2016, before changes were made to the probate service, applications took on average seven to 10 working days to process. Most recent data shows delays of more than 13 weeks.

It is unacceptable that some families are forced to wait in limbo for over three months, as they manage the complex administration that follows the death of a family member.

Delays have also forced grieving clients to incur additional costs, such as unnecessary interest payments on outstanding inheritance tax. Many property transactions also fall through.”

Emerson said that there have been “gradual signs of improvement – with HMCTS reporting more grants being issued than applications received at the end of 2023”. He continued:

“However, there needs to be sustained improvements in the probate service. Beyond recruiting new staff, HMCTS must train staff to possess the required knowledge and level of expertise to handle both digital and paper applications. HMCTS should also undertake further consultation before expanding the digital service to ensure future online probate processes are user friendly.”

2 Responses

  1. One possible and practical way to recompense in part the unacceptable delays in granting probate is for paid IHT to accrue interest at a realistic rate -e.g. the rate applicable to unpaid IHT, to be credited against inheritance tax payable on the estate, until probate is granted.

    This would act as an incentive to accelerate the process, while providing some modest compensation to bereaved families.

  2. Little has been said about the fact that in some case where there is a long delay In probate being obtained it could affect the ability to claim loss on sale relief because shares could not be sold within 12 months. Perhaps that period should be increased to 18 months or even two years.

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