Bereaved families are suffering hardship and house sales are falling through due to probate delays, warn inheritance experts.
A damning report handed to MPs, who are investigating long waits experienced by relatives sorting out estates, accuses the Government’s probate service of being error-prone and lacking in experienced staff.
Applying for probate is a vital step to gain control over an estate after someone dies, allowing executors to access bank accounts, settle debts and sort out bequests.
Applying for probate: A vital step to gain control over an estate after someone dies
But many legal and money experts have condemned the performance of the official service handling these cases, claiming delays are causing emotional anguish and financial harm to relatives sorting out their late loved ones’ affairs.
Reports of probate taking more than 11 months, and firms advising their clients the process will take at least nine months, prompted the Justice Committee of the House of Commons to launch an inquiry at the end of last year.
The Step body of inheritance professionals submitted evidence to the committee this week about significant failings at the probate service, which is run by HM Courts and Tribunals Service – see the details below.
Emily Deane, head of government affairs at Step, says it welcomes recent improvements being made, but increased staff and improved processes alone will not clear the huge backlog of unprocessed applications.
‘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.’
Emily Deane: ‘House sales are falling through due to probate delays. People are taking out loans to pay for inheritance tax’
Chair of the Justice Committee, Conservative MP Sir Bob Neill, said at the launch of its inquiry in November: ‘Concerns over probate have risen sharply over the last five years, with the waiting time for probate almost doubling in the last financial year alone.
‘It is right the Justice Committee examine the reasons behind this, the consequences and takes evidence on the issues of capacity and resourcing.
‘Families across the country, have faced challenges in navigating the probate system, with reports of rogue traders and poor practice, as well as significant delays.
‘My committee wants to examine how the administration of probate could be improved for people who are already coming to terms with the loss of a loved one.’
Conservative MP John Stevenson also raised the issue during a ministerial question session in parliament earlier this month, saying: ‘The service was once excellent, but that is no longer the case — I could give many examples demonstrating its continuing failures.
‘I appreciate the Minister’s efforts to improve the service, but enough is enough. If the service has not materially improved in the next three months, will the Minister take the appropriate action and remove those who are clearly underperforming, so that the service can return to the level it once was at?’
The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, Mike Freer MP, said the level of grants issued had been running at about 8,000 more over the past two months than receipts, and the average mean length of time it takes following receipt of all documents required is now 12 weeks.
‘Following a recovery plan to address the concerns that he and others have raised, I can reassure him that a new management team is in place and we are now seeing a distinct improvement in recruitment, competency, productivity and call handling, and for the past few months disposals have outstripped receipts.
‘I appreciate that the service is not yet where we would want it to be, but I can reassure him that we are starting to see some impact as a result of the measures we have introduced.’
What does Step say is going wrong at the probate service?
Step laid out a series of problems after polling its members about probate delays. Here are its claims made in a submission to MPs. Scroll down further to find the Government’s response.
– A hundred per cent of firms surveyed at the end of last year reported clients suffering cancelled house sales due to probate delays.
– Around two thirds had seen bereaved people suffering financial hardship.
– Delays in granting probate have given rogue traders space to make misleading promises when competing with reputable practitioners.
– There has been a noticeable increase in the number of grants of probate issued with typos or incorrect information.
– A centralisation and digitalisation programme that coincided with an exodus of senior staff was a major cause of the problems at the probate service.
– Applications take several months to be processed even in straightforward situations, whereas before centralisation and digitisation they could be turned around in a week, and when matters are more complex the waiting times can lengthen drastically.
– A new probate portal is a ‘substandard system’ that was inadequately tested and does not provide value for money.
– A policy of not allowing probate service staff to speak on the phone with firms about cases contributes significantly to delays.
– Emails from firms about ‘stopped’ applications – when some problem has been found – are put to the back of the queue, which can add four to six months to the probate process on its own.
– Probate registry errors were a key cause of stopped, and therefore delayed, applications.
– Restrictions that Step understands currently apply to recruitment, such as an emphasis on school leavers, needs to be reconsidered to allow more senior staff to be brought on board.
The Step body received 95 responses to its survey from firms dealing with probate applications. Step’s full report to the Justice Committee is here.
What does the Government say?
‘We have hired and trained more staff to deliver sustained improvements for applicants, with a record 28,000 grants issued in October and the vast majority of applications being processed in 12 weeks on average,’ says an HM Courts and Tribunals Service spokesperson.
HMCTS adds that more than 90 per cent of probate applications are completed digitally, and these are being processed within 12 weeks on average.
There will be instances where cases take longer than others due to their complexity or additional information being needed from the applicant, explains HMCTS.
Processing times information contains all probate grants, including those stopped due to errors on the application form or missing documents such as the inheritance tax form or the original will.
Most probate applications are processed by administrative staff, and their number has been increased and skills improved to issue grants of probate as quickly as possible without compromising on quality.
Meanwhile, a small number of complex applications need a registrar to oversee them.
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