My Lords, urgent action has been taken to address the delays that have been experienced in the probate service. Staffing is being increased and the digital service further improved to help to reduce waiting times.
I wonder whether my noble friend can tell us exactly what the waiting time is as of today, and when he expects his department to meet the recommended waiting time of 10 working days. He will know of my opposition—and, I must say, that of the Law Society—to the policy of a change in the £215 flat-rate fee to apply for probate to a sliding scale amounting to many thousands of pounds, with money up-front on the table. When does he think the department is going to meet that target?
My Lords, historically the time taken for a personal application for probate has been about four weeks. In the recent past, due to a number of factors, that period increased to about eight weeks. The department then applied additional staffing to the matter of processing probate applications, and on average present grants are being issued within six to eight weeks. We anticipate further improvements as we roll out the online system of probate applications, and by October this year we anticipate that all forms of probate application will be available online.
My Lords, delays in grants of probate are causing frustration and hardship, not only for bereaved families, but for many people caught in sale and purchase chains whose property purchases cannot proceed. Does the Minister accept that the current delays result from a rush of applications brought on by the threatened increases in probate fees to which the noble Baroness referred? What consideration has been given to abandoning those increases since this House passed the regret Motion last December?
My Lords, there were essentially two features that impacted upon the timing of probate applications earlier this year. First, as the noble Lord alluded to, there was a marked increase in the number of applications—about 22%—in March of this year. It is perceived that that may have been in response to the anticipation of fee increases for probate. A second, more immediate, factor was the move over in respect of the digital probate service from three probate registries to the Courts & Tribunals Service centre in Birmingham towards the end of March. To facilitate that move, it was necessary to transfer cases, both digital and paper, from the legacy system on to a new single system called CDM. During the first few weeks after the changeover, there were difficulties with the CDM system, which have now been overcome. There was also the need to further train staff in that new system, resulting in pressures on the service during that period. We have now met those pressures, we have stopped the increase in time taken for the processing of probate applications and we now hope to see it reduce.
My Lords, is it still the Government’s intention to make a profit out of the charges levied for probate, or will the fees simply reflect the cost of providing the service, as they should?
My Lords, the term “profit” is not really appropriate in this context. As the noble Lord is well aware, any fees over and above cost in the court system are attributed to its other features so that, for example, victims of domestic violence can have their fees waived with regard to court applications. As regards the present state of the legislation, an approval Motion has not yet been laid in the other place.
My Lords, is it not the case that when the probate fees were brought before your Lordships’ House, part of the argument for increasing them by as much as 200% was that this money would be set aside to fund part of the MoJ’s primary service? Does the noble and learned Lord think that this represents good value for money given the delays now occurring in probate?
My Lords, I have already explained the reasons for the delays in March of this year with regard to the processing of probate applications, which were not related to the fees or the proposed new fees in respect of probate. In so far as there is any cost plus fee being charged for probate, that cost would be attributed to other court services provided by this department.
My Lords, as the noble and learned Lord does not appear to like the word profit, can he tell us how much of the surplus was made available for distribution to other aspects of the justice system?
My Lords, I am very content with the word profit, but it should be used in the proper context—that was the point I was seeking to make. As we have not yet applied the fee increases, there is no issue of a surplus at the present time.
My Lords, might it not be a good idea, in order to incentivise the department to be more efficient, to waive the fees where people have to wait more than 10 days for their probate?
My Lords, I am all in favour of incentivisation, but there is ultimately a cost for any service provided by this department.