An Insight Into The Probate Office During Covid-19

Towards the end of last month we published an article that mentioned there was a surge in probate applications, which led to a surge in demand for those who worked at the probate office.

Today’s Wills and Probate spoke to Stephen Burgess at HM Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS) about the issues currently being faced by the organisation and what other measures are being taken to help applications move forward.

An Insight Into The Probate Office During Covid-19

You have told us that when the nation went into lockdown HMCTS was able to mobilise quickly due to the flexibility already in place. How many staff were moved to working remotely and how have they found the change?

Within the first week of lockdown we moved about 80% of staff to working remotely. Most of our staff are now back in the office, but we’re looking at the advantages of a more flexible approach to remote working in the future. The new IT system introduced in 2019 has enabled us to continue issuing grants and despatching them remotely and our output of grants has remained at expected weekly volumes. Our teams have adapted to this remote working amazingly and continue to maintain performance. We have embraced new ways of communicating within our teams using the IT available to us to keep staff and managers in touch with each other, discussing health and wellbeing, solving issues and performance as we do when our staff are office based.

Even though some probate applications are able to be completed digitally, there will be many that still rely on paper evidence and paper applications. What systems have been put in place to allow staff to work remotely and still deal with these applications?

We have been able to maintain a skeleton staff within all the Probate Offices throughout lockdown, and have worked with our Regional Support Units to provide a safe working environment Staff in offices have maintained paper applications, processed incoming post and organised files for transport to home workers and processed  them on return. This obviously takes up more time which is why we are so keen to help more people use the digital service.

There had been initial reports that the applications for probate had dropped significantly in April, however you have returned to 25% of the applications that were being processed pre-covid-19. What steps are HMCTS taking to increase the quantity further over the coming months?

Whilst there was some dip in receipts the outputs (grants) from the probate service has largely been maintained at pre-Covid-19 levels and we are extremely proud of the way staff have overcome all of the challenges that lockdown restrictions have put in their way to continue providing a service to our users.

The current turn around time is 4 weeks but with applications not yet having reached the expecting peak, when do you see this peak happening?

We know on average that probate applications are made approximately 3 months following the registration of a death and we have plans in place to deal with an increase workload.

We have been told that HMCTS is expecting up to 9,000 applications per week during the peak, up from a baseline figure of 5,000, what steps are you intending to take to lessen the effect on turnaround time?

We have put significant extra resources into the probate service to prepare for any increases in levels of receipts.  The more applications we get digitally the more effective the new resources will be so it is key we support the legal profession to increase its use of the digital service.

How many grants did you issue last week (paper and on the CTSC digital platform). How many paper applications did you receive last week (and how many to CTSC?)

The latest published data on probate applications and grants is available here.

Divorce and Probate Workload
Period (week ending)Divorce3Probate
(Decree Nisi)4
Receipts (Applications Received)Disposals
(Grants Issued)
Pre-Covid Baseline2,4412,1894,8485,197
8 March 20202,7852,4685,6764,357
15 March 20202,6052,3795,5744,728
22 March 20202,1372,3745,1404,448
29 March 20201,4512,4173,7414,105
05 April 20201,4591,7263,5546,072
12 April 20201,2791,5833,3344,696
19 April 20201,4401,7913,6033,933
26 April 20201,7511,7124,9124,427
03 May 20201,8711,5184,2124,303
10 May 20201,7116494,1473,694
17 May 20202,0532,0335,2184,674
24 May 20202,3441,5906,6834,557

1) The management information presented in this table reflects what is recorded on relevant case-management systems on the date of extraction. The case management systems are continually updated and so the information presented will differ from previously published information.

2) The management information presented here may be different from the quarterly MOJ official statistics published due to timing and definitional reasons.   The official statistics go through a more comprehensive quality assurance and analysis process to ensure quality and coherence.

3) Divorce figures include digital and paper cases.

4) Figures shown in the previous publication were for decree absolute. This has been changed to decree nisi as they represent a more accurate representation of divorce disposals.

When (what timescales) do you believe you will hit more than 50% of applications to CTSC i.e. over half?

With the introduction of bulk scanning and the increase in digital applications from the legal profession our staff are able to effortlessly work remotely on applications regardless of whether they are based in the CTSC or a registry.

Is there anything that solicitors and those dealing with probate can do help ease the workload on HMCTS so that turnaround times can be returned to pre-covid-19 levels?

If the application meets the criteria for the digital submission then please submit in this way, this will significantly help HMCTS with processing times. as it reduces the number of processes completed by HMCTS staff. We are continually improving the digital service and will be shortly expanding it to Trust Corporations and removing the need for professionals to send the legal statement to their clients.

You can easily sign up for the digital service here.

There is also a guest blog from Ian Bond, chair of the Law Society ‘Wills and Equity Committee’ which we would encourage people to view. 

Are there any indications of when the majority of staff will be returning to the offices?

Where appropriate staff are already working in offices but we are keen to continue to take advantage of the benefits we have seen from remote working.

What is HMCTS’s biggest challenge at the moment?

We are determined to continue delivering justice safely.

What is the best way for practitioners to communicate with you at present?

We have recently published a FAQ for practitioners about the new paper forms and digital applications. This has many ways to contact HMCTS depending on what the query or feedback the service is about.

Questions from our readers;

 We received some questions from our readers which we also put to Stephen.

Online applications for probate (using the new Probate Application Forms) seem to be a half-way house.  We can complete the PA Forms online but then we have to submit the original paperwork (Will etc) to the Probate Registry.  I tend to avoid the online application form and submit everything in the post so everything is together.

So… what is the advantage of using the online system?  Does it make the process notably quicker when it comes to obtaining a Grant, or are the timescales still the same if we solely use the post?

There are many benefits to submitting the application digitally for the customer, including an instant receipt verification, case tracking and notification updates throughout the process.  The amount of administrative time to process a digital application is less for HMCTS and it stops us from the time consuming process of moving paper files around the country.  If the uptake for digital applications was higher we would be able to process more applications with the same amount of staff which will in turn help us maintain and improve waiting times.

I do have a question although it is more of a query and this relates to contentious matters they deal with.  We issued a summons in February (before lockdown) for the removal of a caveat but have yet to hear anything.  Each time we chase we are informed that the matter is with the Registrar and the pandemic is blamed.  The last time we chased we were told it had been transferred from Leeds District Probate Registry to Oxford District Probate Registry and they would be in touch but that was weeks ago.  Can you ask what we can do to assist with the process all we are waiting for is a date for the hearing of our application and we have been waiting nearly five months.

 Without the details of the case I’m unable to provide a specific answer but if you could forward me the details and I will be happy to investigate this for you.

Work is moved between offices, even before Covid 19, and we have three Registrar’s that closely work together to process contentious matters.

1 Comment

  • test

    Case 1: IHT 421 sent to HMRC on 10 March and returned on 28 April and sent to Probate Registry on that date. HMRC therefore took seven weeks to stamp the form and the Probate Registry has had the papers for over eight weeks!

    Case 2: IHT 421 sent to HMRC on 6 April and returned on 24 April and sent to Probate Registry on that date. An improvement with HMRC which only took 2 1/2 weeks. The Probate Registry has had the papers for almost 9 weeks!
    The above was posted on Trust Discussion Forum approximately three weeks ago and In each case probate is still awaited.

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