Improvements to probate service ‘could help bereaved families’

Improvements to the probate service could mitigate the financial and emotional impact of delays on bereaved families, chartered accountancy body ICAEW has said.

Responding to the Justice Committee inquiry into probate, ICAEW said that despite progress made by HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) to improve the Probate Registry’s service, long delays continued. These were exacerbated by a backlog of paper applications, and in extreme circumstances, some paper or stopped applications were reported by respondents as taking between 12 and 18 months.

Such delays have an emotional impact on families and can also cause financial problems, such as house sales falling through and the inability to access much-needed funds, ICAEW said.

In its response, ICAEW suggested the following improvements:

  • A more customer-focused approach to service delivery, such as a service level agreement
  • Option for online submission for all applications
  • Regular updates from a case worker during the application process, including before the 16-week period has elapsed
  • Relief for families from the impact of inheritance tax and other costs.

Sophie Wales, ICAEW Head of Regulatory Affairs and Policy, said:

“Delays to probate can have significant emotional and financial implications for bereaved families, for example by the value of their assets falling and having no choice but to fund insurance fees and property maintenance costs.

While we recognise the work that has taken place to improve the service provided by HM Courts and Tribunals Service, overall users of the probate service regularly experience significant delays and feel that communication is not satisfactory.

We hope government will take action to address delays in processing of probate applications so that bereaved families are spared further cost and distress at a deeply challenging and emotional time.”

ICAEW is an approved regulator and licensing authority for probate services and has 353 accredited firms. To inform its response, ICAEW surveyed its probate firms on their experiences. Of the 40 responses received, 45% of respondents said the process was taking up to 25 to 28 weeks, and 25% said it was taking longer than 28 weeks. One example given had taken more than 18 months for probate to be granted.

When asked about the perceived reasons for the delay, 62% of respondents said HMCTS lacked capacity and resources, with the second most common reason given being communication, such as the inability to speak to staff or receive updates.

Probate firms said delays affected their reputation because of the perceived slow service. Additionally, the large spread in terms of processing time meant firms felt unable to manage their clients’ expectations or provide meaningful updates.

The House of Commons Justice Committee opened the inquiry in November, asking respondents to share their experiences of applying for probate, in particular to comment on capacity; resources and delays in the probate system; performance measurement and data; technological change and innovation; people’s experience of probate; and fees and thresholds.

The waiting time for probate almost doubled from April 2022 to April 2023, with reports citing cases of probate taking more than eleven months and practitioners advising clients that probate will take at least nine months, the committee said.

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