STEP has responded to the House of Common’s Justice Committee Inquiry into the performance of the probate service amid concerns about serious delays. Delays in the probate service have risen sharply and the enquiry focuses on taking evidence on capacity, resources and delays of the probate service and the impact of digitalisation, including the effectiveness of the online probate portal.
STEP surveyed its members in England and Wales to assess their experiences with the probate service and the effect that delays have had on their clients. It was clear from the replies that members feel that the service has declined over the last few years and some clients have encountered financial hardship as a result and cancelled house sales. Members believe the core problems are:
- a lack of experienced staff, which has contributed to particularly long turn-around times for complex cases and an increase in errors generally (there has been noticeable uptick in the number of grants issued with typos or incorrect information for example); and
- a lack of straightforward, efficient lines of communication with the probate registry via which practitioners and clients can help to resolve any issues which arise and move cases along.
- the probate portal was insufficiently tested and developed when it was launched for lay personal representatives and probate practitioners and it has had continuous issues which have needed to be resolved in a piecemeal way.
We believe that the recent centralisation and digitalisation of the probate service contributed to a significant number of long-serving staff leaving and while efforts are clearly being made to recruit there is still a critical shortage of registry staff who have sufficient qualifications and practical experience in this area. Until this shortage is addressed, it is difficult to see how the backlog in probate cases can be brought down or how standards of service can be improved in general.
STEP proposes a number of ways in which the situation might be improved, including:
- taking further steps to recruit experienced staff as a priority;
- training more of the probate registry’s staff on how to handle complex cases;
- introducing new means of contact between practitioners and the probate registry so that outstanding information or queries can be addressed quickly and stopped cases can be progressed more efficiently;
- implementing transitional measures to address urgent problems, such as outsourcing some of the complex applications to appropriately qualified legal practitioners in private practice to help clear the backlog;
- seconding probate registry staff to suitable legal firms to help train them and give them practical experience. STEP would work with the Law Society and other stakeholder organisations to identify the most appropriate firms to participate in this scheme.
We hope that the inquiry and the media attention that has resulted from it will oblige the government to take some action and resolve some of issues causing the unacceptable service and delays. STEP will continue to consult with the probate service and provide member feedback in order to improve its efficiency moving forwards.
Emily Deane TEP, Technical Counsel & Head of Government Affairs