The Law Society of England and Wales has published its March 2022 probate service update following a “productive” meeting of the probate service user group, which includes HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS), the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (STEP), Solicitors for the Elderly (SFE), the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, and the Institute of Legacy Management.
“Workload and timeliness”
According to the latest HMCTS Management Information on probate service performance, the total applications received was 23,572 while the number of grants issued was 22,759. Digital applications took 15.8 weeks when stopped and 4.2 weeks without stops, while paper applications took 21.5 weeks when stopped and 9.8 weeks without stops. According to the Law Society, “HMCTS consistently receives a higher than average number of applications, which is hindering plans to reduce the backlog”. However, the back log “isn’t growing”. On HMCTS, the Society went on to say:
“Over the last five months, HMCTS switched focus to balance resources between new applications and stopped cases.
Applicants who were having their applications stopped were waiting longer than people who didn’t have to be stopped.
This would indicate that waiting times have gone up, but overall HMCTS states these are performing at a similar level.
HMCTS expects the high demand to decline around the end of May. Resources are being kept at elevated levels and HMCTS states it is keeping on top of receipts.
Yearly figures for 2021 are now available and show the level of grants issued is the second highest in the last 10 years, and 17,000 more than in 2020.”
“Addressing stopped cases”
On the issue of stopped cases, the Society said stops are an “ongoing issue” consuming both time and effort. HMCTS is looking to reduce the number of stops and therefore increase the capacity and timeliness of their service. The Society listed the following reasons for stopped applications, all of which it is looking to review and address:
- Inheritance tax (IHT) – applying to HMCTS and HMRC at the same time, and HMCTS not being able to do anything with the application until the 20 working days has passed.
- Not accounting for all the executors – HMCTS has to ask the questions and cannot let it go through without following it up.
- Condition of the will – HMCTS encourages explanations up front if the will appears like it has had pages removed or unexplained staple holes.
There will also be a renewed focus on improving the HMCTS IT systems to reduce stops, alongside its blog that focuses on the causes of stops. Progress has, however, already been made. Since July 2021, HMCTS states that it:
- Has significantly reduced the number of stops outstanding with evidence.
- Is maintaining these reduced levels, in terms of timeliness and driving them down further, by ensuring relevant resource focuses on stops on a daily basis.
Bringing down paper applications and stops are a “priority in the probate registries dealing with these”.
The Society also listed ways in which members can help reduce stops, beginning with reading and sharing the blog. Other ways to help included:
- If IHT needs to be paid:
- Send the IHT400 and IHT421 form to HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) – HMRC will not return the IHT421 to you (this is sent directly to HMCTS).
- Wait 20 working days before applying for the grant through MyHMCTS.
- When applying for the grant:
- You’ll be asked to enter the IHT form submission date.
- You will not be able to submit your application if you have not waited 20 days.
- Do not alter the submission date in the belief that this will accelerate the time an application will be dealt with.
- If you do not wait 20 working days or alter the submission date, there is a high risk your application will be delayed, and a stop created.
“Your feedback on stops”
The Society said members had “expressed concern about applications stopped in error going to the back of the queue”. On what to do in such an event, the Society said:
“HMCTS confirmed that if you get in touch because you believe an application has been stopped inappropriately or you have provided information that HMCTS has missed (for instance, a will condition comment within your notes), it will put the application to the front of the queue and get an examiner to review it on the day.
If you’re contacting to resolve a stop, these are dealt with based on the date of application (oldest first).
HMCTS confirmed multiple stops shouldn’t be happening, unless the reply to the stop is insufficient.
HMCTS has produced a number of internal measures it wants to improve on, including the number of times it can re-stop a case after it’s been stopped once.
It intends to share these measures at the next user group meeting.”
“Onboarding of new staff”
HMCTS is “routinely onboarding staff to train on contact”, with the Society adding that “providing the grounding on the contact and the core probate knowledge… enables staff to move them on to the basic probate journeys”.
They added that staff must be formally qualified in order to issue a grant of probate. On what will happen moving forwards, they said:
“HMCTS will continue to look for opportunities to boost its examining numbers to continue the flow of application numbers going through.
It anticipates intake to be high over the coming months and routinely brings people on board every four weeks to maintain the levels.
HMCTS is still balancing between addressing contact (through calls and webchat) with examining.
Examining must be the priority in terms of the disposals, as that is what causes contact about timeliness and stops.”
“Call handling and webchat”
According to the Society, HMCTS have reported a “slight increase” in the average speed of an answer owing to an increasing number of calls regarding the “find a will” service and enquiries regarding excepted estates. They continued:
“HMCTS aims to improve the service and resume the level seen in the latter part of 2021 of less than 10 minutes average speed of answer.
It would like to test increasing the amount of resource on webchat and whether to signpost more people to use this for certain types of scenarios and questions.
Its messaging already signposts pre-application queries to webchat.
HMCTS knows the peaks and times of when people are likely to call and boosts the numbers available to answer these.
Monday is always the busiest day and HMCTS encourages users to contact on different days and times.”
The next meeting is scheduled for May. If you have any queries or suggestions on the probate service that you would like us to raise with HMCTS, email [email protected].