News | May 3, 2024

Probate delays: where do the problems lie?

Delays with obtaining a grant of probate in England and Wales have been well publicised in recent months. In an article in The Times on 2 May 2024, however, a courts service spokeswoman commented that the main reason for the delays at the probate registry is “missing inheritance tax information, as well as missing documents and missing executors“. This implies that responsibility for the delays lie with probate applicants and not due to problems within the probate service itself. The probate industry would strongly disagree and indeed the Justice Committee of the House of Commons would not have launched their recent Call for Evidence on the probate service if the problems were mainly applicant-based. The Justice Committee recognised that an inquiry was needed into the capacity and resources of the probate service, delays across the probate service, the impact of digitisation and centralisation, and the effectiveness of the online probate portal.

From our perspective, it seems most issues can be traced back to the HMCTS’s £1billion Reform Programme, which aimed to bring new technology to the way justice is administered, but in our experience so far has radically diminished what was a highly efficient, effective, and self-funding Probate Registry.

Before 2018, a grant of probate could be obtained within two weeks. Now, online applications take between 9 and 19 weeks on average, while paper applications can in the worst cases take up to 52 weeks in our experience – an unacceptable length of time.

Before the introduction of the current system there were legally trained staff in the District Probate Registries who could provide guidance efficiently. The loss of this expertise means queries on an application, regardless of how minor, can now result in weeks of delay.

Users are confused by the online service and frustrated by inexplicable delays. Email queries go unanswered and there is a 16-week prohibition on telephone enquiries – which are often of limited value as the handlers have little or no legal training, so in most cases cannot offer any constructive information.

The new online probate portal has been known to display inaccuracies, such as stating that a grant of probate has been issued when it has not, while you cannot make telephone enquiries within the first 16 weeks. It seems there is no way to obtain an accurate understanding of the progress of a grant application within the first four months of the application.