Probate officials expect the service to return to normal later this summer once the backlog of applications is finally cleared. The Gazette understands that an end to the delays is within sight after a succession of problems beset the service in the first half of 2018.
At its worst, probate applications from solicitors were taking up to eight weeks – in comparison to the two weeks expected as standard.
Court bosses say a number of factors conspired to cause a huge build-up of applications, with the system not prepared to deal with such a spike.
Applications rose sharply in March – 22% up year-on-year – as solicitors rushed to beat the fee increases supposed to come into force from the start of April. These increases, in fact, never actually materialised.
The malfunctioning rollout of new software at probate registries across the country – the system experienced problems for four days’ straight – also caused delays to obtaining grants of probate and letters of administration. The backlog was reduced by 20,000 between May and June, HMCTS sources have told the Gazette, and there are now more applications being processed than ever before. More solicitor firms have also been recruited by court bosses to help develop the new digital service, answering concerns that changes were being imposed on the profession without consultation.
It has also been confirmed that plans to close the regional probate registries are still on schedule, with cases gradually transferred to a centralised service over the next 12 to 18 months.
Talks are continuing with staff at the 10 remaining sites across England and Wales to redeploy them elsewhere in the courts service. HMCTS continues to argue the service can be improved by bringing work under one roof, with legal professionals continuing to have named contacts at the Courts and Tribunals Service Centre in Birmingham.
The change comes as part of the wider £1bn modernisation programme to upgrade the courts and tribunals service.
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