23 August 2019 | Comment | Article by Eleanor Evans TEP
Executors and probate practitioners have since May been battling with increasing delays in grants of probate being issued by probate registries (which are part of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service).
At Hugh James, we are currently experiencing delays of 8-10 weeks at the probate registry for a service which used to take two weeks. I have previously reported on the reasons for the delays, which include:
- An influx of applications to the probate registries before the planned increases to probate fees in April 2019, which are still yet to take effect.
- A new digital probate applications system, and a change to new style grants of probate.
- Planned closures of probate registries which will result in the probate service being centralised in a new Courts and Tribunals Service Centre (CTSC) in Birmingham in 2020.
- Lack of sufficient resource at the probate registries to clear the backlogs of applications.
The Ministry of Justice reported at the start of July 2019 that the probate registries were starting to clear the backlog and that normal service should resume by the end of the summer. Unfortunately, this has proved to be far from the case, and delays have, in fact, grown longer.
It was reported in the Law Society Gazette yesterday that the Ministry of Justice has been under-reporting the delays at the probate registries. Timescales reported by the Ministry of Justice on the UK Parliament’s website have been based on the time taken between court fees for probate applications being banked by probate registries, and applications being approved by probate managers. The reported delays have not taken into account the time taken for probate registrars to sign grants of probate (there are very few registrars, so this may mean waiting for a registrar to come to the relevant registry, or grants being sent to another registry for signing), or the time taken to print the grants and send them to applicants. The reported figures also have not included cases in which a grant is yet to be issued.
When will the probate registry delays end?
It is difficult to know when the problem will start getting better. Whilst the Ministry of Justice have stated that they have employed additional staff at probate registries and that they are reducing the backlog, our experience at Hugh James is that the delays are, in fact, getting worse.
Plans to close the local probate registries are beginning to take effect, with Birmingham District Probate Registry due to close on 31 August 2019. The closure of local registries will result in the loss of a great deal of experience, as well as placing additional pressure on the registries that remain whilst work is being transitioned to the CTSC.
The planned probate fees increase will also take effect at some point (exactly when is unknown, although this could be Autumn 2019), and it seems likely that there will, again, be a surge of applications as executors and probate practitioners seek to take advantage of the current, more favourable fee structure.
The Law Society, The Society of Trusts and Estates Practitioners (STEP) and Solicitors for the Elderly (SFE) are continuing to place pressure on the Ministry of Justice to take appropriate steps to reduce the delays.
The consequences of the probate registry delays are far reaching. There will be delays in estate beneficiaries and creditors being paid what they are due, and sales of estate properties may fall through. Additional interest will be payable on inheritance tax due to be paid by estates where grants are needed to sell the assets from which tax will be paid. There will be delays in charity beneficiaries receiving much needed legacy income. Unfortunately, there is little that executors and probate practitioners can do, other than keeping in regular communication with all parties involved in the estate administration, to ensure everyone is aware of the delays. Great care should be taken to ensure applications are correct on their first submission to the probate registry, so no further delays are incurred as a result of applications being rejected. It is also wise to wait to chase probate registries by telephone until eight weeks have passed from the time the application was submitted, as to chase sooner will only place more pressure on hard working registry staff.
Hugh James will continue to provide updates on the probate registry delays.