Online probate process “taking longer than paper”

Digitisation: Growing delays

A majority of private client lawyers believe the new online probate process is taking longer than the old paper-based system, a survey by the Law Society has found.

Meanwhile, eight out of 10 public law family solicitors said there was a lack of prompt technical support and difficulties in supervising staff using their new online system.

Users of the damages claims portal, meanwhile, were most likely to say they had difficulty uploading documents (56%) and were not getting the necessary notifications (43%).

Across the three categories of work, almost two-thirds of lawyers (62%) reported delays in court proceedings and the administration of justice as a result of the introduction of online portals.

Probate lawyers were most likely to say this (75%), followed by family lawyers (66%) and those using the damages claims portal (46%).

The Law Society surveyed 722 solicitors this summer for the report Online court services: Delivering a more efficient digital justice system. More than half were private client lawyers.

Seven out of 10 family lawyers said it had been difficult or very difficult to deal with their portal, compared to 57% of damages claims users but only a third of lawyers using the probate portal.

Researchers said that, despite the “good intentions” of the court reform programme, lawyers and others faced difficulties with “growing delays in the court system and increased costs in dealing with inefficient technologies”.

They went on: “These issues are challenging, but the emergence of them is not unexpected. Our members have frequently highlighted their concerns about communication issues, technical issues, lack of court staff resource, the level of experience of staff, and delays and their impact on solicitors and their clients.

“We have made clear from the outset of the court reform programme that technology should only be fully implemented once it has been proven to work following robust testing and evaluation – only then can we be confident that we have a system that is fit for purpose.”

Private client lawyers were the most likely to disagree that they knew who to contact if there was a problem with a portal, that their enquiries about the online system were swiftly resolved and they had the chance to provide feedback.

Damages claims users most commonly complained that they lacked access to “adequate training” from HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS), which did not keep them informed of changes.

Two-thirds of family lawyers said the impact of digitisation was an increase in costs for solicitors, while exactly half of private client lawyers said it was an increase in costs which had been passed on to their clients.

Damages claims users were most likely to say that digitisation had speeded up court proceedings, although only a quarter said this.

The Law Society recommended that HMCTS ensure that future online systems were designed with “strong collaborative working between users and stakeholders” and minimum service level standards, alongside “a comprehensive staff training programme”.

There should also be a “robust communication system with clear routes for urgent matters”.

Nick Emmerson, president of the Law Society, added: “We know that modernisation is a work in progress, but this is having a real impact on clients, especially as these portals are often used at an already challenging and difficult time, such as managing the estate of a deceased loved one, handling a child protection matter or getting help with an accident that wasn’t their fault.

“The increased delays and associated uncertainty these portals have created are causing additional stress.”

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