Latest HMCTS update on The Probate Office developments

Today’s Wills and Probate caught up with the Probate Office to get an update on the progress made since the summer.

Back in the July we gave an insight into the probate office during Covid-19 following a surge in probate applications which led to a huge demand of their services.

Since then, HM Courts and Tribunals Services (HMCTS) and other professionals have been urging firms to sign up and start using ‘MyHMCTS’ for submitting probate applications online. A consultation ensued that proposed mandating online probate applications. Practitioners reacted on social media to air their views after the Government’s announcement that from November it will be compulsory for probate professionals to submit applications using the online probate system.

Consequently, under legislation laid in Parliament on the 1st October, it became official that it would be mandatory for probate professionals to submit probate forms and applications online from 2nd November.

Stephen Burgess at HMCTS recently spoke about the developments and improvements that have been made by the probate office.

An Insight Into The Probate Office During Covid-19

You informed us your offices are operating on a rota basis as all staff are keyworkers, so all require time in the office at some point in their working life. As you know a few months ago Government called on employers to bring everyone back to the office but has changed that decision and reverted back to ‘work from home if you can’. How have you adapted to this move by the Government (especially now we are in a second lockdown)? Have you made any changes? What ratio of staff work remotely compared to in the office?

We haven’t needed to change our ways of working much at this point in time, but we are monitoring the situation when government advice changes. We continue to have staff working from offices and working from home. During the peak of the pandemic we had up to 80% of Probate staff working from home but this has reduced to around 40% in recent months.

You also advised that all staff have adapted well to the unprecedented times. To support mental health and wellbeing in the workplace, what measures have been put in place for a good work/life balance?

HMCTS have dedicated intranet pages for Support and Wellbeing, which includes comprehensive information around mental, financial and other health and wellbeing categories. Senior leaders within HMCTS and local managers have continued to support this through Webinars, internal communications and face to face meetings where possible.

I believe that those employees who work from home deal with the digital applications and those in the office deal with the paper applications. As staff are on a rota basis what systems have been put in place to allow staff to work remotely and still deal with paper applications? Do you have more staff in the office rather than remotely?

Probate staff can work on digital or paper applications at home or in the office. It is a simpler process for staff to work on digital applications as there is no need for movement of paper files between Registries. The more cases that are submitted digitally, will support the Probate service in becoming more efficient as it will remove the administrative need to move work nationally.

You reported there was a 5-10% increase of digital applications since the beginning of the year, and during the first lockdown it increased but has now levelled out. Meanwhile, the same volume of solicitors submitting paper applications has stayed the same from before Covid-19. Approximately, what percentage of online personal applications have you received, compared to solicitor applications in the last few months?

We publish data on the volume of digital and paper grants issued as part of the Family Courts Statistics Quarterly suite of statistics. This shows that in the first quarter of the year 20% of all grants issued were digital and this increased to 22.5% between April and June 2020. The next publication is due in December.

We have seen a steady increase in the use of the digital system by probate professionals and this will of course increase further now some elements of the online service are mandated.

Your turn around time for applications in early July was 4 weeks. You told me you peaked sooner than you thought which was mostly in July rather than in August, as predicted, which you were processing 8,000 applications a week for a few weeks but this has since dropped down to January 2020 levels of around 5,000 – 5,500 a week. What are your turn around times now for applications, digitally or non-digitally? Are you expecting to have peaks again in the near future?

We published weekly data (on a monthly basis) on the number of receipts and disposals and you can find that here.

The volume of applications received each week has increased above the normal average since mid-May 2020, but it has been a flatter peak than we predicted. This has meant waiting times have continued to improve slightly despite the pressures of the pandemic and the increased volume of receipts.

Our most recent published turn-around times for digital probate applications is between 2 and 5 weeks compared to 5 and 7 for paper applications. The difference in waiting times reflects the difficulties in working with large quantities of paper safely within the pandemic restrictions which are in place and ultimately the efficiency of the digital process.

Tell me about the ‘Bulkscan project’, how does this system work for lay persons completing paper applications? How does the process work for solicitors sending paper applications to registries?

The bulkscan project works in tandem with the digital process, with our back office scanning our paper application forms, PA1P and PA1A, onto our case management system. Applications are then available on our system in a similar way to digital applications, which allows similar benefits, such as not requiring files to be moved or collected by caseworkers and automated data entry.

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?)

Our weekly published statistics can be found here.

Table 4b: Probate Workload
Period (week ending) Probate
Receipts (Applications Received) Disposals
(Grants Issued)
Pre-Covid Baseline 4,848 5,197
02 August 2020 5,438 6,321
09 August 2020 5,845 5,468
16 August 2020 6,432 5,194
23 August 2020 5,832 5,784
30 August 20205 5,260 6,017
06 September 20205 4,650 4,432
13 September 20205 5,025 5,441
20 September 20205 4,732 5,427

NB. Please see the glossary entry “Family Law” for a description of public law, private law and divorce.

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 first iteration of this publication were for decree absolute. This has been changed to decree nisi as they represent a more accurate representation of divorce disposals.

5) Family data is especially subject to revision due to late data recording, and disposals for the most recent weeks in particular are likely to be revised up and outstanding cases down.

Our weekly published statistics can be found here. In July we issued, on average, more than 5,400 grants a week (which is 9% above our 5 year average) and in August we managed more than 5,700 which is 16% above average. This dropped slightly in September, but still above average and we are committed to continuing to provide extra resource to maintain and increase the higher outputs.

Do you believe there will come a time when you will be processing more digital applications than paper? Would this be feasible?

With the mandation of Solicitor Probate applications starting on the 2 November, we expect to see digital uptake for solicitors to exceed 80% by the end of the grace period on the 30 November (we will start returning applications received by paper if they can be submitted online after this date). Our staff are trained to deal with digital applications and the benefits attached to the digital process will make the service more efficient.

In what way can solicitors and those dealing with probate do to help streamline applications going forward for the future?

Solicitors using and providing feedback on the digital service will help us streamline the service we provide. To further assist us in processing applications, it is important that Solicitors and citizens wait at least 15 days before lodging their probate applications if they have had to submit form IHT 421 to HMRC. By doing this it will ensure that when their application is received, we will already have notification from HMRC that it can proceed. Currently this accounts for nearly 40% of our stops and adds time onto all of those applications. We are continually working with HMRC to improve cross agency working and have moved away from a paper-based process. We are also looking to develop a more automated process, so watch this space.

We have recently produced an article called ‘5 steps to a successful Probate application’, which is aimed at professional users and providing them with guidance to help prevent applications being stopped.

The online service enables probate professionals to track the progress of their case and see exactly what stage it is at. We ask that they use this feature to reduce the volume of calls that are made to the CTSC. We use the same staff to answer calls and administer cases so the less calls we receive the more staff can focus on issuing the grants.

Finally, we would ask for the legal profession to remain patient and understanding of the pressures the staff working within the probate service are facing. The pandemic, and associated restrictions brought unprecedented challenges and has impacted how we all live and work and the staff in the probate service have worked tirelessly throughout to continue to keep the probate service working.

What has been HMCTS’ biggest challenges in the last 6 months?

The biggest challenge we have faced is continuing to deliver justice safely, maintaining social distancing for staff and court users.

Do you think there has been any positive outcomes as a result of the pandemic?

The pandemic has challenged us to find different ways of working and explore more digital solutions, which has supported the work we had started under the Courts and tribunals reform programme.

And finally, what is the best way for practitioners to communicate with you at present?

One of the benefits of the online system is that probate professionals can track and find out updates on their cases without having to contact the CTSC. We ask that you use these features but also do not call us to check on progress within 6 weeks of us receiving the will from you.

We have 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 is or feedback the service is about.

Today’s Wills and Probate will update you next month on the progress made on the mandatory roll out of online probate applications.

Today's Wills and Probate