My Lords, current waiting times in the probate service are within expected timeframes, but we expect that to come under pressure as case receipts rise. The service has continued to operate effectively, despite the pressures faced during the Covid-19 pandemic. Additional resources have been, and continue to be, put in place by Her Majesty’s Courts & Tribunals Service to prepare for additional demand following the increase in the overall death rate.
I thank the Minister for that Answer, but his claims do not mesh with my experiences or those of others. I appreciate that, like other service providers, lockdown has caused challenges for the probate service, but its problems of resourcing and organisation go deeper than that. It was already in the midst of an apparent restructuring. Press articles last month on the chaos experienced by relatives mirror my own saga. I received misinformation, and calls and emails went unanswered. Finally, my husband’s will, which had been deposited with the service, could not be located for a very worrying few weeks—almost a subject for the theatre of the absurd. Only once I had gone on Twitter was my case solved. People who are grieving deserve better treatment than many are getting, not least from the probate service.
My Lords, I very much regret the personal experience that the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, suffered. However, particularly during the present crisis, the probate service is working effectively. There was a move in the last year to a digital system. That is bedding in and proving successful. Indeed, the average waiting time for a grant of probate in the period January to March this year was about four weeks.
Are not inordinate delays and confusion, applications stuck for four months without explanation, people kept on the line for 50 minutes and staff unable to find relevant documents symptoms of an organisation that was already underfunded and whose staff were undertrained before Covid? Is this service not unacceptable for the families and charities that need assets released? Will the Minister guarantee that fees will not be raised while the performance of the probate registry is so poor?
My Lords, with continuing delays now extended over several years, is it not time for the Government to introduce a one-stop shop for dealing with probate to avoid the need to go back and forth making arrangements between the courts service, the Treasury and others?
My Lords, the introduction of a digital scheme is proving effective. Because of that, it was possible for probate staff to deal more effectively with applications during the Covid crisis. We are seeing a greater uptake in the digital service from legal professionals as well.
Given the comments already made by noble Lords, does the Minister think that adding various issues to probate, such as the signing of wills remotely by video call, could increase disputes and later administrative problems? Perhaps the probate service is being overloaded.
My Lords, in fact, we have taken steps to simplify the probate process. We are replacing affidavits with a statement of truth, accepting electronic-type signatures on probate forms, and allowing legal representatives to sign legal statements on behalf of clients. These steps will simplify and accelerate the process.
My Lords, there has clearly been a lot of adverse press and we have heard from other noble Lords about personal experiences where the probate service has not performed as we would all wish. What confidence does the Minister have that the probate service is performing as well as he claims it is? What monitoring does he think is appropriate to put in place so that we can all have confidence that the probate system is fit for the present large increase in Covid-related deaths that we have seen?
My Lords, in late 2019 we saw a very clear and discernible improvement in the turnaround of probate applications and probate grants. As I indicated, in January to March this year the average waiting time for a grant of probate was about four weeks. Some, of course, are simpler than others. Indeed, where written rather than digital applications are made, there is greater room for error and therefore of delay in respect of these matters. However, we are monitoring the system. That is why we can give figures on the turnaround on probate grants. We are training additional staff as well. We appreciate that this will be required, given that there will be an increase in probate applications over the summer, reflecting the increased death rate as a result of the Covid pandemic.
My Lords, does my noble and learned friend the Minister agree that the delay on granting probate in recent years has been far more than is reasonable? Does he not think that it would be helpful if the Government could allow, prior to probate being granted, more additional payments to be made from an estate than are allowed at present?
My Lords, I emphasise the improvement that took place in the grant of probate during 2019 and into 2020, even in the face of the increased demand on the probate service as a result of the Covid crisis. As a result, we are seeing a turnaround in the grant of probate that allows for the present system on payments to be accommodated. We have no proposals regarding my noble friend’s latter point.
My heart goes out to the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, who demonstrated the personal heartache that comes when systems do not work. Could the Minister reflect on the fact that the Courts & Tribunals Service has always been under major pressure, not least because of the use of agency staff? What plans are in place for when staff who have been reallocated to probate go back to their normal working lives?
My Lords, we have undertaken the training of an additional 34 staff in the probate service. In addition, as district probate registries close in the light of the development of the digital applications, we have sought to retain some of those staff within the courts and tribunal system for probation work. However, other staff are allocated to other parts of the Courts & Tribunals Service.
Are any of the temporary measures adopted during lockdown under consideration for becoming permanent—for example, signed statements of truth replacing affidavits or HMRC accepting estimated values and then subsequent corrected values?
Certainly, it is intended that permanently replacing affidavits with statements of truth will be considered, as will electronic signatures on probate forms—albeit that the whole issue of electronic signatures should be considered more widely. Going forward, we will seek to learn from these changes what permanent improvements can be introduced to the service.
I commend the Government on the move to a digital scheme for probate, but will the Minister consider an urgent inquiry into the performance levels that we have been hearing about since March? What has happened to average waiting times? How many important documents have been mislaid, and what lessons can be learned on streamlining the service after recent experiences? I add my sincere condolences to the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford.
I thank the noble Baroness for her question. We appreciate that the service will come under increased pressure in July and August, because of the increased death rate in the spring. Probate applications tend to come about three months after the relevant death. We are pleased with the rollout of the digital service and the response has been extremely good, with an increase in take-up by legal professionals. The system is being monitored and we will ensure that the improvements of the latter part of 2019 continue, while recognising the challenges of the Covid-19 crisis.