HMCTS probate update by James Stebbings

May 25, 2023

This is the first of our monthly updates, aimed at keeping you up-to-speed with the latest news on HMCTS probate output, something we know you all feel very strongly about.

We have been having regular conversations with HMCTS for around four years since their issues processing probate applications first emerged in March 2019.  In that time, we have built very good relationships with their leadership team, including Adam Lennon, the Deputy Director for the Family division, which covers probate services; Stephen Burgess, who spoke at the ILM Conference in 2022; and their Head of Operations Kevin Bunn.

Whilst we, like everyone, have been very frustrated with their output levels since 2019, we are hugely grateful to the team at HMCTS for being so responsive, collaborative and transparent in that time. They have listened to our concerns about the impact on the charity sector and we believe they are really motivated to increase output given they know the positive effect it will have on charities’ income.

We often contact them with specific questions about the service and the impact on charities. We have occasionally met them in person, including a visit to their main service centre in Birmingham, and we now have regular meetings where they provide performance updates.

The main meeting is the quarterly “Probate User Group Meeting” attended by the Law Society, STEP, Solicitors for the Elderly and other representative bodies such as the ILM.  That meeting is a great opportunity to hear how HMCTS have been performing, what investment they have made, what innovations they have looked at and implemented, and what risks are on the horizon. These meetings are also very helpful as we get to listen to the perspectives of the other probate users.

In addition, we also have regular meetings with HMCTS where ILM and Remember a Charity focus on the issues affecting charities. A particular focus for these meetings is on getting clear, prompt data on applications and output. This data is critical to the sectors understanding how many legacies and how much income is tied up in the system. For those interested, the data is published here. This data is not always released as promptly as we would like, but it is of high quality and allows us to conduct the analysis we need.

At our most recent meeting a few weeks ago, ILM and RAC met their forecasting team, as we were concerned that output was consistently falling short of what we had been led to expect. The meeting was very interesting, and we were very impressed with detail and accuracy of their modelling. What emerged was that they were excellent at predicting the number of applications, but they have consistently overestimated the output they would produce from the available staff.

It is the failure to deliver the expected output that means their backlog was at a record 50,000 applications at the end of March. The backlog is the number of applications over and above the volume of work they had in February 2019 of around 18,000 pending applications.

This is incredibly disappointing for members, for HMCTS and indeed for all users of probate.  It is not however, due to a lack of investment.  We have had concerns that the pressure on government finances would lead to a real fall in investment, as has been seen in other areas but, thanks to pressure from bodies like the ILM, this has not been the case. Significant additional investment has seen them employ an additional 100 people since the end of 2022, taking the number of staff to 275.

Whilst this investment has yet to pay dividends, we are hopeful that the additional staff will start to have a positive impact in the coming months. We are however, conscious that there have been several false dawns in the past few years, and we therefore urge caution with forecasting and internal communications.

HMCTS have told us not to expect significantly improved output for another few weeks. The primary reason for output remaining low is the amount of resources that have needed to be directed to training the new staff. They have also advised that training has continued significantly longer than the eight weeks initially planned, taking more than three months to get staff operational. More positively we now understand that 80 of the 100 new staff are now fully trained and the remaining few should be available soon.

We have been warned to not expect improved results when the April data is released. This is due partly to the number of bank holidays and leave taken in this period, but mainly because their teams have been focusing on the oldest and most tricky applications, which has resulted in much lower output. This should however mean that they can focus on more straightforward matters moving forwards.

We will continue to speak to HMCTS and monitor the data, which we hope will improve as the year continues. We will also look to keep you all up-to-date with the information we obtain.

James Stebbings, Chair of the ILM

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