Executors and bereaved families will be only too aware of the length of time it has taken during the pandemic to obtain grants of probate.
Practitioners will be aware of this too but will also remember a time not so long ago when grants were issued soon after applications were submitted, sometimes in a matter of days. The direct line or email address of a friendly district registrar would often be pinned to the practitioner’s notice board, with a quick telephone call or email resulting in an update or even an expedited application, to the satisfaction of practitioner and client alike.
Very sadly the pandemic has led to a surge in applications for probate, putting further pressure on an already stretched system. Mandatory periods of home working for court staff, the introduction of an online service for grants of probate applications which experienced teething problems, delays with HM Revenue & Customs issuing the form 421 “receipt” required for probate, a newly centralised Probate Registry and the closure of the District Probate Registries all seem to have contributed to the significant delays in the time it has taken for grants to be issued. As a result, in 2020 applications took between 12 to 14 weeks on average to be processed. This average had improved slightly to 9 weeks by November 2021.
The impact of the delays has in certain cases led to increased administration costs as practitioners have also experienced lengthy delays in trying to obtain updates for the executors. The human costs have been apparent too. Protracted and sometimes even aborted property sales while the executors wait for the grant have been reported, and executors have been left frustrated and stressed with the delays. Plans made by beneficiaries have been shelved or scrapped entirely. Reports of extreme delays and executors’ sleepless nights have even made the national press, with executors left feeling “stuck in the middle” and responsible to the beneficiaries for the delays.
The Law Society has called for “tangible improvements” to the probate service and automatic refunds of the probate fee if standards slip. By mid-December 2021, HM Courts and Tribunals Service has committed to reduce its outstanding workload to pre-pandemic levels and to return to its normal active case load by March 2022. They are also training and recruiting more staff to the probate service. HM Courts and Tribunals Service has also mobilised all its skilled probate examiners to analyse “stopped” cases where delays have been even longer and as a result have been able to reduce their outstanding “stops” caseload.
Despite the perfect storm of factors which appear to have caused the delays of the last couple of years, it is hoped that HM Courts and Tribunals Service are able to clear their backlog and that the time taken between applying for a grant of probate and receiving the grant will now reduce significantly.
Proposed increases to Court fees are currently being considered by government ministers, but there is widespread sentiment that if fees are to increase (to a single fee of £273 for professional and non-professional probate applicants from £155 and £215 respectively), then this is all the more reason for standards to improve.
James Mabey, Senior Associate at Winckworth Sherwood