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HMCTS update on delays in probate applications

Author: Professional Standards Department

Published: 07 Nov 2023

As a member of the Probate Service User Group, the ICAEW Regulatory Policy team regularly meet with Her Majesty's Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) to raise your questions and feedback. Find out what improvements are being planned for Autumn 2023 in HMCTS.

After the recent meeting with HMCTS, ICAEW looked back at HMCTS’s service performance between July and August 2023.

Processing applications: a look at the numbers

  • HMCTS received 52,459 probate applications, including 39,940 online applications between July and August 2023.
  • On average, HMCTS grants around 1,000 applications per day.
  • Processing times are stabilising at an average of 6 to 8 weeks.
  • Call handling times have reduced to an average of 10 – 15 minutes.

Addressing the backlog

Full figures for September were not finalised at the time of our discussion but are anticipated to show an improving picture. However, HMCTS confirmed there remains a backlog of approximately 8,000 probate applications.

Clearing the backlog of paper applications is a key focus for HMCTS to expedite overall processing times. This is because there are more paper applications than digital applications in the backlog, and they take longer to process. They aim to complete this project within six weeks by adopting a targeted approach that includes:

  • training a specialist team of examiners to focus on paper applications;
  • upskilling call handlers so that they resolve application issues promptly;
  • reallocating administrative tasks from examiners and encouraging ownership; and
  • building capacity and training for specialist teams to carry out complex casework.

HMCTS commented, “We think we have the volume of staff we need. It’s no longer about growing resource but building capability and working smarter.”

While HMCTS acknowledges improvements have been slow, they expect further progress by the end of the year with a projected 15% increase in output.

Top tips to avoid delays: insights from HMCTS

Avoid stops

Delays can have significant implications on the settling of an estate, the value of assets, payment of fees and of course, your workloads. Therefore, staying informed and proactive is crucial to prevent unnecessary delays.

HMCTS explained that stopped applications are the main reason for delays. Reasons for stops include missing supporting documents and Inheritance Tax (IHT) information, queries about wills and named executors. When applications are stopped, they are moved to a separate queue for processing to wait for additional information.

Approximately 84,000 probate applications were stopped this year and 37,000 of those were from professional users (solicitors and accountants).

Use HMCTS’s document coversheet and notes

HMCTS provides prompts to confirm which documents you need to send. Using the coversheet is essential because it lists the documents and forms you need to send and the case reference number.

Use the notes field to add additional information for example, about the condition of the will, the reason for missing executors, or changes to the name of the deceased. This information is then added to the legal statement and reviewed by HMCTS assessors.

Don’t submit probate applications too soon

HMCTS highlighted that around 25% of applications, or approximately 8,000 submissions, were stopped, due to IHT issues. A key reason for this is submitting probate applications too soon after sending IHT forms to HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC).

Preventing premature submissions: a new approach

The online case management tool, MyHMCTS, prompts applicants about this requirement, but some practitioners are reportedly still sending in applications before 21 days have elapsed. To tackle this issue, HMCTS is implementing a new administrative process in collaboration with HMRC to prevent forms being submitted prematurely. This is intended to be in place by the end of year.

Plan ahead and look out for MyHMCTS prompts

If IHT needs to be paid, submit the IHT400 and IHT421 form to HMRC first. This will take around 20 working days to complete. It is then updated on MyHMCTS. Look out for the update as you can apply for the grant after this. You will also be asked to enter the IHT form submission date. To plan ahead consider:

  • a checklist of file actions and scheduling regular MyHMCTS update checks;
  • diarising the earliest date for submission after IHT forms have been submitted; and
  • completing the coversheet in advance so that you have all the necessary documents prepared.

Other updates

Looking forward to 2024, HMCTS is planning to improve the number of forms that can be accessed online. They also advised that they intend to update their Ad Colligenda Bona process and guidance. In the meantime, if you are dealing with an intestate estate, guidance on applying for probate can be found on the Government’s webpage for when there is no will. Remember to seek legal advice where appropriate.

Finally, HMCTS also reminded the group that the 16-week escalation process has now been removed so that all probate applications are dealt with more fairly and caseworkers can focus on progressing applications.

Providing feedback to improve service standards

ICAEW values your feedback and follows up on your queries and concerns. Recently we provided feedback to HMCTS from a firm that reported having to provide evidence of its probate authorisation with each probate submission.

HMCTS has now assured us that it has taken steps to ensure staff are aware of this issue and know how to check authorisation of ICAEW members to conduct probate work. We will continue to monitor this issue and to actively engage with HMCTS to improve delays. You can also email probatefeedback@justice.gov.uk to directly share your feedback with HMCTS.

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