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3rd June 2024

Politics and probate problems

Amy Taylor
Amy Taylor
Probate Manager

One of the more unfortunate consequences of the calling of the general election is that the Justice Select Committee Probate Inquiry is now unable to produce its report on the current state of the probate process in England and Wales. 

The Justice Select Committee Probate Inquiry was set up in November 2023 amid concerns over delays in processing probate applications. The waiting time for obtaining probate almost doubled from April 2022 to April 2023, and since then I can safely say that waiting times have only got longer! 

This is a problem. Probate involves identifying a deceased person's assets, paying off any liabilities and then distributing the estate in accordance with the Will (if there is one) or the intestacy rules (if there is no Will). However, in order to do this, the personal representatives of the estate usually require some form of Grant from the Probate Registry to manage the deceased person's assets. Until they have this Grant, there is often little they can do to sort out the deceased's estate. 

In response to the inquiry, probate practitioners submitted written evidence to the committee addressing the many questions that were put to them. Responses were carefully collated and thought through in the hope that it would allow the inquiry to uncover the reasons behind the delays and act upon them.

Parliament was prorogued on 24 May in response to the calling of the general election. As a result, all ongoing work by the Justice Committee ceased at this point and no inquiry on the state of probate will now be produced. 

Some concerns raised during the data gathering for the inquiry were put to the Minister in the evidence session on Tuesday 21 May. Justice Committee Chair Sir Robert Neill KC MP acknowledged the consensus among witnesses that:

  • Staffing levels at Her Majesty's Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) were inadequate;
  • Experienced staff departures have resulted in a loss of knowledge that cannot be replaced by the newly installed computer system alone; and
  • That despite some recent improvements the quality of service remains inconsistent.

The effect of the delays are being felt across society, as Yasmin Qureshi, a member of the inquiry explained: “one of the things we have received a lot of information about is the direct impact of the delays on different people - not just individuals but, for example, charities. We received information that about £30 million worth of charitable donations were delayed. Councils’ adult social care systems are chasing up debts as well, which is running into millions. Some individuals have even considered suicide due to the fact they cannot continue to live as they were. For example, if you think about it, the person who passed may have been the working person, the breadwinner. The house might be inhabited by the person who was not the breadwinner and they now have nowhere to live.”

Sir Robert Neill urged the release of more data to improve transparency and aid organisations working closely with HMCTS. This would prevent practitioners from being unfairly blamed for delays and assist various sectors in mitigating the negative impacts which have been seen to date.

HMCTS responded to concerns raised saying it had been training staff and successfully reducing the current backlog. When questioned on timescales to clear the backlog, HMCTS was confident that it could improve the service and get it back to Pre-COVID timescales by September 2024. 

Will they manage it?

Watch this space.