Inquiry calls for change in probate service crisis

On behalf of Attwaters Jameson Hill posted in Trusts & Probate on Thursday, July 4th, 2024

Analysis of Ministry of Justice data shows that there has been a 65% increase in probate cases taking a year or longer to clear. These delays are continuing to cause significant emotional distress and financial losses for families who are already going through an incredibly difficult time in their lives. And, in spite of poor service levels, the MoJ increased probate fees by 10% from May 2024.

An inquiry, launched by the House of Commons Justice Select Committee, was set up to look into the issues. Unfortunately, the Committee was disbanded, and the inquiry suspended, when the general election was called on 22 May 2024.

The inquiry may have been halted – but the issues with the probate services have by no means gone away.

What are the current problems?

According to the government, the time from application to grant of probate should take just 16 weeks. As the analysis shows, many cases are taking far longer. There are thought to be several primary reasons behind the delays.

Firstly, His Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) has been dealing with huge backlogs in probate applications since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, it is important to note that probate registry performance had already been on the decline before the pandemic hit, suggesting wider systemic issues.

Secondly, a move towards the digitisation and centralisation of the probate registry has been hampered by poor execution, with the chair of the Justice Select Committee, Sir Robert Neill KC MP, saying: “the cause of the collapse of the Probate Registry was a failure to understand the magnitude of the centralisation and digitisation projects and a failure to appreciate the importance of an experienced and skilled workforce.”

Thirdly, staff cuts at the Probate Registry – particularly at senior levels – has allegedly resulted in delays on more complex cases, as the Registry now lacks experienced registrars to deal with them.

How are probate delays impacting families?

Probate delays are impacting bereaved families in numerous ways:

  • Delays can mean that families are unable to pay Inheritance Tax bills, resulting in late payment penalties or additional interest being charged.
  • Property transactions are failing due to the grant of probate not coming through on time, with families on the hook for thousands of pounds in legal fees and other costs
  • Emotional distress – the financial pressure of waiting for probate can be extremely stressful for bereaved families
  • Ongoing expenses such as utility bills, insurance and mortgage payments still need to be paid whilst families are awaiting probate.
  • A longer probate process and heightened stress is more likely to result in inheritance disputes.

Recommendations for reform

In place of a full report, Sir Robert wrote to Mike Freer, Parliamentary Undersecretary of State for the Ministry of Justice, to highlight their findings.

Several recommendations were made by the inquiry for a more effective probate system, including:

  • A public report detailing the reasons for the failures to prevent future issues
  • Collaboration with relevant groups to tackle problems like empty homes and care home debt linked to probate delays
  • Increased transparency through sharing more data on caseloads and processing times
  • Regulating the will writing sector to protect consumers – many will writers aren’t currently regulated so it’s always safest to seek advice from a qualified lawyer.

The inquiry highlights the importance of a well-functioning probate system and urges swift action to help the government regain public trust and implement reforms that will improve the probate process for everyone involved. These changes will be vital to ensure minimal financial and emotional distress for grieving families going forward.

Call on our Lifetime Lawyers

At Attwaters Jameson Hill, we are proud to have Accredited Lifetime Lawyers on our team who have undertaken additional training and qualifications to enable them to provide enhanced support to families in situations such as these. Together with the Association of Lifetime Lawyers, we will continue to highlight the issues with the probate service to demand better for our clients – both now and beyond the election.

If you’d like advice on the probate process, please get in touch with our expert team on 0330 221 8855 or email enquiries@attwaters.co.uk .

To read the full probate inquiry letter from Sir Robert Neill KC MP, you can do so here.

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