Probate service statistics reveal continuing decline in grant applications

 In Probate

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PROBATE SERVICE STATISTICS

Our latest analysis on the number of applications for a grant of representation show a further decline in the number of applications, especially solicitor applications. 

Statistics released by the Probate Service to Title Research show solicitor applications for a grant (in England & Wales) fell by 4% to 158,570 in 2010 compared to the previous year.  This marks a continuing decline in solicitor applications which have dropped by 30% since 2006. However, on closer inspection of the statistics over the last few years, this decline is not as stark as it first appears. The decline of 4% in 2010 is far smaller than 2009 and 2008, when the declines were 9% and 10% respectively.

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The number of applications made by private individuals in England & Wales has dropped, albeit slightly, in 2010 by 1% to 88,491. This contrasts with a 4% increase in personal applications in 2009 and a 2% increase in 2008. This appears to show that the drop in solicitor applications is not a result of a corresponding increase in private applications.

Solicitor vs personal grant applications – Graph

Impact of the Legal Services Act

There is of course a wider context to be considered, that of the liberalisation of the legal services market and increased competition from the big brands and new entrants into the market.

Solicitor applications recorded by the Probate Registry include solicitors in private practice, and those employed by private companies (such as the Co-operative Legal Services) to undertake estate administration. If probate practitioners are being more proactive in marketing their services, is it the case that new entrants and greater competition have helped slow the decline in professional applications? If one considers grant applications as a barometer on the state of the market, it could also be argued the big brands and new entrants still need to gain some ground before they can claim to have secured a greater share of the consumer market.

Death statistics

Setting these figures against the latest death statistics for England & Wales shows the drop in solicitor applications cannot be attributed either to a comparable fall in the number of deaths. The number of deaths recorded in 2010 was 493,242, compared to 491,348 in 2009, an increase of 0.4%. Whilst these have been the only years since 1951 that deaths have been below 500,000, the number of deaths between 2006 and 2010 has fallen by only 2%.

This would suggest the fall in solicitor applications could be attributable to a number of other factors. These factors could include more private DIY estate administration, a tougher economic environment leading to belt tightening by consumers, a greater number of estates falling below the threshold requiring a grant or financial institutions being more relaxed about the need for a grant.

Death statistics vs grant applications – Graph

Legal Services Board – reservation of probate

An almost inevitable effect of fewer people using a solicitor or other professional adviser to undertake probate is going to be a rise in incorrect distribution of estates or fraudulent distribution of estates.

The Legal Services Board has recently launched a consultation on its proposal to make the whole estate administration process a reserved legal activity. Currently, only preparing papers for a grant is reserved. If further regulation does come into force, it will be interesting to see what impact this has on the number of consumers using professional advisers to assist with probate. Will more regulation encourage consumers to put their trust in professional probate advice or will it drive up costs creating a barrier for consumers and a rise in mal-administration of estates? Furthermore, how will DIY estate administration be monitored and by whom?

Intestacies

The 2010 Probate Registry statistics show a total of 191,632 grants of probate were extracted and 55,003 letters of administration. Subtracting the number of grants of probate from the number of deaths appears to suggest a total of 301,610 apparently intestate estates in 2010 (compared to 295,103 in 2009), but there are of course many estates where a Will has been written, but a Grant is not required. In the Law Commission consultation paper on reforming the laws of intestacy, they recognise the difficulty of obtaining accurate figures on the number of intestacies. They reference previous studies carried out by the National Consumer Council which suggest between half and two thirds of adults have not made a Will, although people are more likely to make a Will as they get older.

The commercial opportunities are clear for probate practitioners looking to assist the high proportion of adults who have yet to make a Will.

The challenge for regulators considering the whole area of Will-writing should be to significantly reduce the number of intestacies whilst safe-guarding the consumer from poorly written Wills.

And the winner is….

As in previous years, congratulations are in order once again to Winchester District Probate Registry (DPR) which is far and away the most popular choice for solicitors wishing to extract a Grant. In 2010, Winchester issued 35,793 grants compared to its nearest rival, Brighton which issued 22,596. This a consequence of probate registries not having mandatory catchment areas. For example, if a deceased person was resident and died in Avon or Somerset, it is not necessary for a grant of representation to the estate be taken out at Bristol DPR; the personal representatives could elect to extract the grant in, say, Newcastle if they so choose (for instance, if they themselves lived on Tyneside).

Clearly Winchester’s reputation for being efficient and helpful, particularly for more complex transactions (such as reseals) continues to be high amongst probate practitioners who have repeat business.

In the spirit of introducing a bit of competition for Winchester in future years, or least a race for silver and bronze medals next year, our graph below shows the number of solicitor applications per DPR in ascending order. On present form Oxford, Newcastle, Ipswich and Brighton are all medal hopefuls for next year.

The clear anomaly from the 2010 statistics is the London DPR. Why does the most populated part of the country have the fewest solicitor applications? What’s more, it is the only DPR where personal applications exceed solicitor applications. If any readers can shed any light on this anomaly, please do get in touch.

Grant applications by District Probate Registry – Graph

All the graphs are available to view and print in this All graphs

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