MPs launch inquiry into lengthening probate delays

Probate: Concerns have risen sharply

MPs have launched an inquiry into probate in the wake of mounting concern about how long the process is taking, with HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) admitting to rising levels of complaints.

The justice select committee said reports cited cases of probate taking more than 11 months and practitioners advising clients that probate would take at least nine months.

HMCTS’s most recent figures, for September, said it was taking 15.4 weeks from submission to issue of the grant of probate, compared to 9.3 weeks a year earlier.

The reformed probate service was launched in July 2018 as part of the HMCTS reform programme, offering a digital service. Its use has been mandated for lawyer users since November 2020.

The committee will take evidence on capacity, resources and delays across the probate service, the impact of digitisation, centralisation and innovation, including the effectiveness of the online probate portal. The call for evidence closes on 22 January.

Sir Bob Neill, its Conservative chair, said: “Concerns over probate have risen sharply over the last five years, with the waiting time for probate almost doubling in the last financial year alone. It is right the justice committee examine the reasons behind this, the consequences and takes evidence on the issues of capacity and resourcing.

“Families across the country, have faced challenges in navigating the probate system, with reports of rogue traders and poor practice, as well as significant delays.

“My committee wants to examine how the administration of probate could be improved for people who are already coming to terms with the loss of a loved one.”

Separately, HMCTS has published an access to justice assessment for its probate service, a tool it uses to identify, fix and monitor access to justice barriers.

This highlighted “higher-than-expected contact (complaints, emails and calls), as well as lower than expected levels of user satisfaction”.

The main driver for contact was applicants seeking an update on the progress of their case, HMCTS said, “which was exacerbated by delays in the service and an increasing backlog of older, outstanding cases”.

“This analysis has led to improvements being made to the service and HMCTS processes during 2023. These include changing operational processes to target the backlog of older cases, introducing a Citizens Hub, where applicants can log in to get updates on their case, and changing messaging to let applicants know that cases will take around 16 weeks, rather than eight weeks as stated in the original messaging.”

More broadly, the assessment did not find any evidence of users being excluded from the service, nor of differences in case timeliness or outcome by age, disability or sex.

“The assessment found positive evidence of an improvement in access to justice as changes to the service have resulted in more users being able to apply for probate on their own.”

However, potential access to justice barriers included:

  • Cases from ethnic minority users take longer and are stopped more than white users;
  • Older users rely on the paper service, more which takes longer;
  • Reasonable adjustments are under-used and under-recorded.

The assessment said: “Each of these barriers has an associated service fix in place, including improvements to user guidance that we expect to reduce the differences experienced by ethnic minorities.”

Meanwhile, the committee is holding evidence sessions on the regulation of legal profession on the next two Tuesdays. It will be quizzing the heads of the Legal Services Board, Law Society, Solicitors Regulation Authority, Bar Council, Bar Standards Board, CILEX and CILEx Regulation.

There is no specific reason given for this, except that the last time that the committee examined the regulation of legal services was 2016.

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