Probate registry errors and inexperienced staff key causes of probate delay, survey reveals

STEP has responded to the House of Commons Justice Committee’s inquiry into the probate service in England and Wales amid concerns about delays.

Many bereaved families are waiting more than 11 months for probate to be granted, and waiting times almost doubled between April 2022-April 2023. In response to the inquiry, STEP has surveyed its members to provide evidence about the impact of probate delays, potential causes, and recommendations to reduce delays.

All respondents (100%) have had a case of a cancelled house sale due to probate delays:

  • 76% have experienced between one and five cases.
  • 94% of respondents observed damage to the reputation of probate practitioners, as members of the public did not understand why it took so long to wind-up estates.
  • 64% of respondents have seen cases of financial hardship for beneficiaries.

Probate registry errors were revealed as a key cause of stopped, and therefore delayed, applications by 68% of respondents. Most (61%) respondents highlighted that applications were delayed still further because of a lack of senior staff to review them.

Nearly all (94%) of respondents recommend that the UK government should appoint more probate registrars. STEP and its members (80% of respondents) are keen to see more complex cases identified early on and allocated directly to a senior person. Alongside this, 82% of respondents would like more financial resources for the probate registry so that current and future staff can be upskilled, and trained to handle complex questions. Emily Deane TEP, STEP’s Technical Counsel and Head of Government Affairs, said:

“We welcome the inquiry and recent improvements being made to the probate registry. However, increased staff and improved processes alone will not clear the huge backlog of unprocessed applications in the system. Bereaved families and charities alike are in financial and emotional limbo waiting for probate to be granted.

STEP is urging HMCTS to consider outsourcing some complex cases to a limited number of experienced law firms. This would immediately help reduce the current backlog that leaves people in financial hardship, unable to access funds to pay their mortgage or other urgent bills. Practitioners are telling us that house sales are falling through due to probate delays. People are taking out loans to pay for inheritance tax which is due before probate is granted. Immediate action is needed now.”

The survey of our members also found:

  • Grants should be issued within 28 days of application
    STEP and its members believe that a reasonable target for the processing of applications should be within 28 days for non-urgent cases.
  • ‘Substandard’ probate portal does not improve access to justice
    55% of those surveyed felt the portal did not improve the process and 61% felt it did not provide value for money.

STEP members feel that the probate portal was not developed sufficiently when it was first launched. This has resulted in additional hours spent and fees incurred by authorised probate practitioners and their clients trying to navigate it. The portal has had ‘piecemeal’ upgrades in response to criticism or operational difficulties.

STEP’s full consultation response can be viewed here.

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