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Probate: Waiting Times

Volume 826: debated on Thursday 8 December 2022


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government whether the Probate Department’s recommended wait time for the granting of probate of 10 days is being achieved; and if not, (1) what is the current average waiting time, and (2) what steps they are taking to reduce the delay.

My Lords, there is no recommended wait time to produce a grant of probate. However, despite the unprecedented challenges of the pandemic, average wait times for probate following receipt of the documents required have been maintained at between five and seven weeks. Average waiting times are currently almost one week faster than the yearly average for 2020 and 2021. HMCTS is increasing resources to meet higher demand and to further bring down overall timelines.

I thank my noble friend the Minister for his Answer. Is he aware that, in 2018, His Majesty’s Government promised radical improvements to reduce the number of days that people have to wait to 10 working days? Four years later, in my own experience with a very simple will that considered only a bank account, it took me three months to get a grant of probate. A friend of mine has been waiting for three years and still has not received a reply. Is the Minister aware that the probate department seems to be infected with a virus that causes it to lose information and not be capable of responding to emails, manning its chat room or answering the telephone? Does he agree that, at a time of deep sadness, confusion and disorientation, these claimants should be treated with respect and compassion? As such, will he ensure that probate staff are trained and claimants are kept in touch with regarding the status of their application?

My Lords, first, I apologise to my noble friend and all those affected by unacceptable delays in the probate registry. Secondly, active steps are being taken to fix the problem. Some 76% of all applications are now made digitally. The problem arises in so-called stopped cases where an element, such as a document, is missing or a query arises. That is where communications have been less than perfect. The registry has now recruited more than 100 staff to make sure that phone calls and emails are answered properly and that the web chat facility, which deals with around 200 calls a day, works well. My colleague in the other place, Minister Freer, is monitoring this closely. I am told that telephone answering times have now come down to less than 10 minutes. We are determined to ensure that that progress continues. I fully accept that, in a time of bereavement, the service in the probate registry must be beyond reproach.

My Lords, will the Minister join me in congratulating his noble friend, the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer? This is not the first time in a distinguished career in public service that she has converted personal grief into public campaigning and courage on behalf of other people. I am very grateful for her intervention. The justice system is creaking under the weight of years of austerity. Digitalisation may be part of the answer but it is not the whole answer when there are human beings involved. Perhaps the Minister might meet his noble friend to get some direct experience and advice for his department moving forward.

I fully associate myself with the noble Baroness’s remarks. It is completely right that these issues should be raised, and I congratulate my noble friend Lady Meyer on raising them. I have already met her to discuss this problem. In fairness to the probate registry, I simply point out that we are still enmeshed in the aftermath of Covid. Excess deaths are currently running 13% above the five-year average. The first half of 2022 saw 16,000 extra applications above the same period in 2020. So there is a challenge here. I assure your Lordships that, as far as I am concerned, this issue is being monitored closely and everything is being done to correct it.

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, has the sympathy of the whole House. The 10 days mentioned in her Question are a pipe dream, frankly. The Minister’s figures are hopelessly optimistic. My understanding is that eight weeks is generally the absolute minimum, and only if the form is flawless. The Government’s website says that you will usually have to wait 16 weeks from application to grant—that is from now to nearly Easter. Any queries add another month. If there is inheritance tax to pay, that adds another month. It often takes hours, not 10 minutes, for someone to answer the phone, and it often takes weeks for them to respond to emails. This is a wholesale failure of service at a desperately sad time in people’s lives—a time of loss, grief, stress and worry. Are not the Government and the Minister ashamed of this performance?

My Lords, I think that I have already conceded that there have been difficulties and some degree of failure in the registry. I understand that the 10-day limit is not intended to apply to the grant of probate, where often complex documents have to be examined and a formal grant of probate issued. My understanding is that the average for digital grants in a straightforward case is currently two to four weeks, although I accept that it is a bit higher with paper applications. The 16 weeks mentioned on the website is a classic and usual example of the Government avoiding overpromising and underdelivering—I would much rather overdeliver and underpromise—but I anticipate that that period will come down. Every effort is being made to correct the issue.

My Lords, how far is this bad example of the law’s delay due to more and more people still working from home? If that is a factor, why on earth are the Government introducing a Bill that will allow every newly appointed person to whatever job to opt to work at home for certain parts of it?

My Lords, as far as I am aware, the problems in the probate registry are not related to persons working at home, but I will make further inquiries for my noble friend Lord Cormack. As I say, processing times are coming down. If noble Lords and others involved would care to report to me or my colleague in the other place, Minister Freer, their personal experiences, we are on the case and we will address this issue.

I am grateful to the Minister for that offer, because my niece has been told that she will wait two years for probate. In the meantime, she is having to care for a bungalow that was left—she has to pay for the heating and the insurance on the property, but she has very little money to do that. There was a problem with the probate service in 2018, which was pre-Covid. The problem arose because of the cuts by Osborne on the public service generally. We are going to the dogs right across the board with so many of our public services and we need to reverse that now. One way in which we could help people with probate problems is to give them some advance towards the costs that they have to meet. Will the Minister consider that?

My Lords, I invite the noble Lord to write to me or the relevant Minister in the other place with that particular problem so that we can address the issue. That is not the sort of thing that we wish to see happening. We will of course consider all available opportunities to improve the service offer.

My Lords, the Question asked by the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, is important and I identify with her views and those of my noble friend Lord Marks. The emotional time of bereavement is made worse by a host of bureaucracy, much of it duplicative and unnecessary, and sheer inefficiency. In the spring of 2020, the probate service lost my late husband’s will, which had been deposited with it for safekeeping, and for three weeks I did not know whether it would reappear. I found the probate service Dickensian. It does not seem to have got much better. Will the Minister and his colleagues in the Ministry of Justice, which has many agencies that, frankly, underperform, make this a priority?

My Lords, I very much apologise to the noble Baroness for that incident. I hope that I have made it clear that this is a priority. We have to sort this out.

My Lords, according to the Law Society website, the biggest source of delay in probate applications is waiting for inheritance tax documentation. Can the Minister say what is being done to tie up HMCTS with HMRC to make sure that the proper information goes automatically to the probate service so that it can resolve this issue?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, for that question. I am not in a position to answer it, but I will write to him with an answer on the relationship between HMRC and HMCTS.