Being positive in the face of Probate registry delays

 In Probate

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Gill Steel - Solicitor, Trainer in Wills Probate Trust TaxFor over 12 months now the once well-oiled workings of the probate registry have been gradually slowing due to the attempts by HM Courts & Tribunal Service to change the service to a money generating digital service.

In 2017 the initial move was to attempt to hike the fees for estates worth £2million or more to £20,000 and to incrementally increase the fees from £155 for solicitor applications generally. As you will remember this brought a huge outpouring of anger and lobbying of MPs to object to the move. But the damage was done, as the government did not withdraw the draft SI in time for a surge in applications to get underway at the Probate Registry to avoid the higher fees, which were anticipated to start in April 2017. In the event an election was called and the SI withdrawn.

This left excessive workloads for solicitors, registry staff and HMRC dealing with the taxable estates where a receipt for the IHT was needed before a Grant could be issued. This problem has continued despite the best efforts of operational staff at both HMRC and the registries because the government tried once again in 2018 to introduce an SI to increase the probate fees this time with a more modest hike for the largest estates to £6,000 but nevertheless still a significant increase from the current flat fee of £155. It had the same effect – creating a huge backlog of applications in March 2019.

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The problem is that at the same time the digitalisation of the probate service got underway. It was announced this would result in all the registries closing over the following 12 months and the service being centralised in Birmingham. Who in the commercial world would embark on such a disastrous move and survive in post at the same time as creating unsustainable workloads?

The results have been truly awful:

  • Grant applications made back in March 2019 may still not have been dealt with, although with extra staff taken on the backlog is slowly being addressed in date order
  • The staff are not able to take calls due to the sheer volume of cases they are dealing with whilst learning to use the new computer system which went live in March
  • Many bereaved families are unable to progress house sales and access funds for nearly three months; Ministers continue to say that more recent applications are being turned around within 6 – 8 weeks but this seems to depend to which registry the application is sent to; however, the backlog at HMRC for taxable estates is about four weeks so it will be three months wait for a Grant still in a taxable estate
  • Birmingham Probate Registry will close on 31 August 2019 and all new online applications are being dealt with at the new Birmingham Courts & Tribunals regional service centre. Paper applications received in Birmingham will be sent to Newcastle to deal with. Staff have been redeployed we are told

 

On a more positive front we are changing to a digital system which will surely pay dividends in the longer term if the professional bodies can persuade the HMC&TS to ensure proper legalities are observed. So far we have as a result had the following changes:

  • Oaths are no longer required for paper applications as they will be inappropriate as we move entirely online – this change happened in November 2018. Instead a Statement of Truth must be completed by the PRs which saves the swear fees and the administrative costs of organising the PRs to swear before a different solicitor – SI 2018/1137
  • Wills no longer have to be marked as an exhibit to the Oath – rule 10 NCPR as amended by SI 2018/1137
  • Thus we no longer have to send in two copies of the Will with the application as the Will is no longer annexed to the Grant. The original Will must be submitted to the Registry by post and not scanned as legally the Registry must store the original Will
  • To ensure we have access to the proved Will, and as a sop to the charity sector who might be losing the notification service, the cost of obtaining a certified copy Will reduced to £1.50 with effect from 22 August 2019 – Court Fees (Miscellaneous Amendments) Order 2019
  • From 8 August 2019, in response to complaints from professional bodies, where Grants are corrected they will no longer be altered in red pen but be re-issued featuring a line stating ‘Amended and re-issued [date] pursuant to Registrar’s Direction’
  • From 1 October 2019 solicitors will be able to use the online application system, which is currently only in pilot form or used only by lay applicants – SI 2019/1057
  • As a result of going digital, all documents can be scanned and sent with the application on line apart from the original Will; and fees for online applications can be paid by an account rather than cheque.
  • Solicitors will be able to track all their applications and will be able to make hundreds of them per week if necessary

 

Whether or not the rise in probate fees has gone away for good or only been postponed until the service is back on an even keel is anyone’s guess. Tim Loughton MP raised this question in the House of Commons:

“The Non-Contentious Probate (Fees) Order 2018 went through Committee at the beginning of the year but has still not been subject to a vote here. Given that the proposed increase, for no additional work, from £215 to potentially £6,000 has been described as an abuse of the Lord Chancellor’s fee levying powers, has he had second thoughts and decided to reject this iniquitous proposal?”

To which Mr Gauke, the then Lord Chancellor replied:

“I think the Government will be responding to that in due course.”

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