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Probate Services in desperate need of overhaul: an urgent call for improvement

by | Feb 8, 2024

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With probate registry services under significant pressure and so many people experiencing delays at the moment, Gurpreet Jani, Senior Associate in Lewis Denley’s Private Wealth team, explains some of the improvements which have been suggested and why urgent action is so important

Losing a loved one is an incredibly challenging time for any family, and navigating the legal intricacies of winding up an estate only adds to the emotional burden. The Probate Registry, an integral part of HM Courts and Tribunal Service, plays a crucial role in providing legal authority for estate settlement. Unfortunately, despite its noble purpose, the Probate Registry is currently failing to meet the needs of bereaved families, resulting in alarming delays and distressing consequences.

Recent statistics reveal a concerning trend – many grieving families are experiencing agonising waits of over 11 months for probate to be granted. Astonishingly, between April 2022 and April 2023, waiting times have nearly doubled, compounding the anguish for those already grappling with loss. The situation worsens when paper applications are involved, exacerbating the already dire delays.

These protracted waiting times have far-reaching consequences, both emotionally and financially. Families, in their desperate need for closure, are unable to access crucial estate funds. Property sales are falling through, adding a layer of financial strain. Meanwhile, ongoing expenses such as property insurance, maintenance, council tax, and utilities continue to accumulate, exacerbating the financial strain on bereaved families.

 
 

The ripple effect extends beyond families to the professionals providing probate services. The delays not only prolong the process but also create a perception of inefficiency among clients. Practitioners find themselves hampered in providing meaningful updates, owing to a lack of communication from the Probate Registry. This not only affects the efficiency of the legal process but also tarnishes the reputation of probate service providers.

Recognising the severity of the situation, the House of Commons Justice Committee initiated an inquiry into the probate service in November last year. Concerns about persistent delays prompted a wide range of feedback from professional bodies. The Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (STEP) suggested outsourcing complex cases to experienced law firms, while the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEX) pinpointed a “lack of adequate staffing” as a central issue leading to delays.

In response to this crisis, the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW) proposed several improvements. A more customer-focused approach to service delivery, including a service level agreement, is recommended. The option for online submission for all applications could significantly streamline the process, making it more accessible and efficient. Additionally, regular updates from a case worker throughout the application process, even before the 16-week period elapses, would offer much-needed transparency.

 

The feedback from these professional bodies unanimously underscores the urgency of improving the probate service and reducing delays. Implementing these suggested improvements is not just a matter of administrative efficiency; it is an ethical imperative to alleviate the burden and stress on grieving families during an already challenging time. As the inquiry progresses, the hope is that these recommendations will be heeded, ushering in a new era of responsiveness and compassion within the Probate Registry, ultimately ensuring that families receive the support they need and deserve.

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