New Probate Application Delays Data Considered Inaccurate

Official Government statistics suggest that the mean average waiting time for probate applications between April and June, the peak period of the delays in service, was just 5.6 weeks.

During a recent parliamentary written answer, completed by Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Edward Argar, the average length of time from receipt of the application to the issue of a grant of probate and letters of administration in April was just two weeks. This figure increased to six weeks in May and nine weeks in June.

However, these figures fluctuate massively to those found by Today’s Wills and Probate at the start of July. As of 24th June, the Winchester Probate Registry was working through cases from 1st April 2019.

This would imply that up to June 24th, the backlog was actually 12 weeks. The email also claimed that ‘all registries are working to the same time scales’, suggesting that delays to applications are likely to exceed the nine-week maximum average highlighted by HMCTS during the letter.

The letter response has also been criticised for manipulating the data and under reporting delays to service. The letter claims that 93% of online application users were at least ‘satisfied’ with their service. Whilst this figure may reflect a satisfied consumer base, experts have highlighted that online applications make up just 10% of all applications with written applicants omitted from this survey size.

Furthermore, the data is taken from the Reform Core Case Data system, the new system which has been in development and subject to a number of difficulties. The information is ‘Provisional and subject to revision,’ leading some to question the validity of the data.

Simon Hancox, CEO of Kings Court Trust, commented:

“At Kings Court Trust, we are continuously submitting Grant of Probate and Letters of Administration applications to the probate registries to allow us to administer estates on behalf of the families who instruct us to take care of the process. Our experience of the delays leads us to seriously question how the figures released by the Government can be accurate. From Kings Court Trust’s 2019 applications to the probate registries some example data included:

  • We currently have 157 applications outstanding at the registry; normally we would have c50 with the registry
  • Oldest date of these is February 2019
  • Pre March 2019 the average turnaround was 2 weeks
  • Grants we applied for in May: the average turnaround time for issue was 8 weeks. Although, we still have 7 applications submitted in May that have not been issued so nearly 12 weeks old
  • Grants are not being issued in date order. From the Grant applications we submitted in July we have had 20% of the Grants issued but we still have 98 grant applications pre July 2019 that are still outstanding.

“The delays are having a significant impact on the estate administration timeline and our own cash flow. We are doing everything we can to lessen the impact of the delays on those who have entrusted us to take care of their estate administration, however, there is only so much we can do as it is mostly out of our control until the backlog has been resolved and a normal service is finally resumed.”

Rebecca Harbron Gray, Partner and Head of Wills, Trusts and Probate at Gordon Brown Law Firm LLP (GBLF), commented:

A year ago, we could have the Grant back in 10 working days and now we are stuck with anywhere from 9 – 11 weeks.

“I have not had an application come back quicker than this recently.

“As a firm with a large property team, we see the problems worst affected are in house sales. Previously, Probate Registries had the ability to prioritise applications but this discretion has gone and, to be frank, you don’t even know which Registry is processing your application now. Applications to Newcastle might be processed by Cardiff due to their re-allocation of work internally.

“Calls cannot be made and answered easily as there is not a clear way to know where your application is at any one time.

“Additionally, chase up emails are going unanswered for a sustained period of time or unanswered altogether.

“And then there is the fateful day that your Grant finally arrives, and various errors are found within. We have seen a marked increase in the number of Grants that are arriving that are incorrect with rudimentary mistakes such as missing names and surnames. We even had the Probate Registry issue both Letters of Administration (confirming there is no Will) and a Grant of Probate (confirming there is a Will) for the same deceased.

“It has become a ridiculous outcome for an organisation that was previously operating to a high standard. I hope that this is set to return soon but, in my view, the backlogs remain severe at the present time.”

Ian Bond, Chair of the Law Society’s wills and equity committee, said:

“I am looking forward to meeting with HMCTS early next month to challenge them again in the delays.

“If I mention another reason why the minister’s answer is disingenuous is because it fails to mention that the spike in applications in April onwards was a result of when it was widely thought the probate court fees would change. HMCTS created and contributed to the problem by not coordinating their plans to change the IT system when a spike of applications was to be expected.

“Last point – 1,000 grants a day should be considered Orwellian and likened to the “chocolate rations” quotas in 1984. Each year the registry issues around 250,000 grants. We have 365 days a year, less 104 days for weekends and 9 bank holidays to give 251 working days. We already had an average of 1,000 grants a day. They fell well below this in a mess of their own making. We have just got back to them working at the pace the registry once had as standard. With a backlog of estimated 40,000 it is going to take a long time to get back to the normal process time of two weeks.

The figures given are for the period from banking the payment to the legal manager approving the application. It doesn’t include the wait for the registrar to come to that registry to sign (or the application to be sent to another registry where the registrar will be). Nor does it include the time taken to print and send.

“Online applications make up between 5-10% of applications – the responses from paper applicants are conspicuous by their absence.

“With a backlog of an estimated 40,000 it is going to take a long time to get back to normal.”

Matthey Lagden, CEO of The Institute of Legacy Management, commented:

“ILM is aware from our charity members that delays in issuing Grants of Probate has led to a fall in the number of notifications that are being received, in some cases by as much as 20%.

“This will inevitably lead to a short-term fall in legacy income for some of our charity members at a time when charity incomes generally are under pressure.

“Our members are reporting that the number of notifications received over the summer is still below what they would have expected, and it does seem to us that the backlog which built up from April to June is not being cleared as fast as all parties had hoped.  We are working closely with our charity members and other professional bodies to monitor the issue and press for a resolution.”

Edward Argar, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Justice), commented:

“The recent, temporary increase in waiting times was caused by a combination of an increased volume of incoming work and the transition to a new case management system. The move to the new system meant that staff had to spend time being trained and familiarising themselves with it. There were also some initial performance issues which have now been resolved.

“At the end of June 2019, 93% of users indicated, from five feedback options, that they were satisfied or very satisfied with the online application service provided.

“Urgent action has been taken to address the delays which have been experienced in the probate service. Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) is increasing staffing levels and further improving the digital service to help reduce waiting times.

“Official statistics are not published on the average length of time from receipt of the application to the issue of a grant of probate and letters of administration. HMCTS internal management information, which is not subject to the rigorous quality assurance processes of official statistics, has been used to show the following average times from receipt of an application to a grant being issued.

“These figures do not include cases which are waiting for a grant to be issued. The data from April 2019 to June 2019 have been extracted from the HMCTS Reform Core Case Data system, which is a new system in active development, and may not be directly comparable with figures for earlier periods. All figures, especially those for April 2019 to June 2019, are provisional and subject to revision.

“Some grants are experiencing delays of between four and six weeks outside of our targets as a result of significant increases in work during March and April and some technology issues which have now been resolved. We have recruited more staff and are now issuing in excess of 1,000 grants a day, which is bringing waiting times down further.”

Are stakeholders in the Wills and probate sector still experiencing significant delays?

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