The probate service is being put under pressure by the volume of people getting in touch to check on the progress of cases, HM Courts and Tribunals Services (HMCTS) has said.

In a meeting with the Law Society, HMCTS officials emphasised that while delays are not currently occurring, extra staff have been recruited to prepare for potential increases in workload. It also acknowledged that ongoing remote-working may be slowing down some processes.

HMCTS added that it is assessing its current messaging about people getting in touch regarding their application, hoping to limit the numbers contacting it.

At House of Lords questions last week (27 July), Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Ludford meanwhile asked both what plans the government had to provide additional resources for the probate service, and how it was dealing with existing issues.

Stating that HMCTS had been in the middle of “an apparent restructuring” when the pandemic hit, Baroness Ludford pointed to her own recent experience of “chaos” within the probate process following the death of her husband, former Islington Council leader Steve Hitchins, in 2019.

“I received misinformation, and calls and emails went unanswered,” she said. “Finally, my husband’s will, which had been deposited with the service, could not be located for a very worrying few weeks… People who are grieving deserve better treatment than many are getting, not least from the probate service.”

Responding to the Baroness, Lord Keen of Elie, Ministry of Justice spokesperson in the House of Lords, said: “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.”

Labour peer Lord Howarth of Newport also voiced his concerns about the way the system was operating, raising the issue of “applications stuck for four months without explanation” and of “people kept on the line for 50 minutes and staff unable to find relevant documents”.

Such “unacceptable” episodes, he suggested, were symptomatic of “an organisation that was already underfunded and whose staff were undertrained” even before the pandemic arrived.

Lord Keen said such conclusions were unfounded. “We have taken steps to simplify the probate process,” he commented. “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.”