When Penelope Ormerod appealed to the Observer for help, she wrote: “I am close to despair.” She had applied for probate on her late aunt’s estate in September. Nearly seven months later, she was still waiting. The application had been sent from her local register office in Oxford to Manchester and was never seen again, while the newly centralised number for probate inquiries was almost impossible to get through on.
“My aunt had left a life-changing amount to her great nephews and nieces and I suspect the probate service has lost the paperwork,” she says. “The beneficiaries were counting on using it to fund university and retraining courses, but their plans remain dreams while the money sits in a black hole somewhere.”
Penelope’s daughter, Jessica, one of the beneficiaries of the will, says the experience has been “like a nightmare. I have found it difficult to sleep because I feel very responsible – I am also one of the executors – for my cousins and siblings”.
Ormerod is one of a dozen readers to have contacted the Observer this year after waiting up to nine months for a process that used to take two weeks. Probate is the legal process usually required for estates worth more than £10,000, unless they are jointly owned with a living partner, and allows executors to take charge of a deceased’s estate. The delays have left bereaved relatives unable to settle bills, disburse bequests and, crucially, sell homes to pay death duties before penalties are incurred.
A backlog caused by Covid restrictions has been compounded by a £1bn shake-up of the courts and tribunals process.
As of this year, solicitors applying for probate on behalf of clients are required to use a new online system, which has been declared unfit for purpose by legal firms.
Meanwhile, the majority of regional probate offices were closed down last year and their services moved to a central hub, a Courts and Tribunals Service centre in Birmingham. The reforms are intended to streamline the process; critics claim they have digitalised death.
Martyn James, of complaints website Resolver, encountered the problem firsthand after his brother died last year. “The whole process of dealing with a death has become alarmingly hands-off,” he says, with complaints about probate increasing 42% since 2018.
“Most of the probate services I encountered are entirely online forms and sympathetic videos. I was alarmed that at the one time you really need to talk to a financial service, you can’t.”
The centralised system includes a helpline, but callers face waits of up to an hour and agents are often unable to find information.
Ormerod explains that when she started the process, there was an Oxford office with “helpful staff that I could bike over to in 10 minutes”.
But that changed. “Since January,” she says, “I have phoned the only number available about half a dozen times. Each time it takes five minutes to press the right buttons to be put through to a recorded voice telling me to go online during a 45-minute wait for a human.”
She was granted probate within 12 hours when the Observer intervened. The Ministry of Justice blamed “human error”.
Probate solicitors report the same problems and claim the mandatory online application process was rolled out prematurely.
“I can see why the government is doing it, but the system isn’t ready,” says one solicitor who contacted the Observer for help after waiting six months for a client’s application to be granted. “I took part in the trial of the new technology and abandoned it because I didn’t want to expose clients to its inadequacies.”
She says her workload has increased on average by 50% since the reforms, mainly because of the long waits to chase progress. “It takes between 20-50 minutes to get through, which is not sustainable on a fixed fee,” she says. “I used to be able to call the local registry and ask for an application to be expedited because of a pending sale. Now, if clients want us to chase once or twice a week – which can be the only way to get things moving – we have to charge extra, so they’re being penalised for the inadequate system.”
According to a survey by Solicitors for the Elderly (SFE) in December, half of probate applicants polled faced delays of up to 20 weeks and one in 20 more than eight months. Michael Culver, chair of the specialist group, and a partner at legal firm Bolt Burdon, says the online system is still causing significant delays. “Many people are trying to arrange a house sale before the end of the stamp duty holiday in June but are unable to do so because of the delays,” he says.
The human cost can be immense. Pauline Alvarez from Oxford applied for probate after the sudden death of her brother and was still waiting, unable to get through on the helpline, nine months later.
“His death shattered our family and we have not been able to tie up his affairs,” she says. “We found a buyer for his house five months ago but have not been able to complete the sale. The worst bit was the impossibility of getting information on what was happening. It’s shocking that the grief of losing a loved one is made so much worse by the apparent incompetence of the probate service.”
Bereavement charities, including Marie Curie, have been calling on the government to address the problems. Nigel Gorvett, head of legacy and giving, says: “We have been working with the HM Courts and Tribunals Service to resolve the delays, and to make the process as simple and straightforward as possible so people can get support in whichever way works best for them, digitally or in person.”
The Ministry of Justice says average waiting times for paper applications have fallen to between five and six weeks after extra staff were hired, and straightforward online applications are taking a week to process.
It told the Observer that centralisation of services spared applicants the need to travel to registries, and user feedback was monitored to ensure the to make the service as empathetic as possible.