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HM Courts and Tribunals Service launch a digital probate service

View profile for Esther Woodhouse
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An online service for selected personal applicants of ‘non-complex’ estates has, in fact, been available under a pilot scheme since November 2016.  The launch now invites all personal applicants to apply providing certain criteria are met:

  1. one executor or personal representative is applying;
  2. a valid will exists (excluding codicils); and
  3. the deceased was domiciled in England and Wales.

The launch is part of the Government’s grander plans to reform the justice system to deliver a modern service, and is designed to make the application process for a Grant of Probate more accessible, quick and easy. I certainly welcome anything that makes the court system more efficient, but have concerns that if this is taken too far, unless suitable safeguards are in place, the system could be open to abuse, especially fraud in the hands of unscrupulous applicants. It will be interesting to understand how the court fully assesses the capacity and vulnerability of the applicant and I hope that vigorous procedures are in place to protect their position and the assets of the estate.

The scheme is being extended to professionals later this year and I look forward to this promoting greater efficiency in the legal services our Private Client team is able to offer.  Whether you are a personal or a professional applicant for probate, the process can be time consuming, depending upon the assets and liabilities known within the estate. Applicants (ie, executors) have a legal duty to ensure the information they disclose with the application is correct and complete to the best of their knowledge and belief.  This can be daunting, particularly when many personal applicants may have no previous experience of undertaking the process, nor fully appreciate the duties imposed upon them.  It is hoped that the new service will help to streamline the process and enable applications to be administered more efficiently.

In my view, the scheme does have great potential to be a valuable online service, although I am conscious that a more modern approach could possibly open the floodgates to unscrupulous individuals taking advantage of vulnerable applicants, particularly since the requirement to swear the oath in person by either a solicitor and/or a commissioner for oaths is no longer required.  Given the potential risks, is it possible for the courts to run a complete digital service without public contact? It is unfortunate that we live in a society where rogues will do their utmost to cheat the best of systems, and so the courts are certainly going to have to keep their wits about them!

One last thought …. the change in the process for applying for probate should also be considered in the context of the proposed hike in probate court fees, something Roythornes has been strongly campaigning against.  Surely the simpler, online service will mean the probate registry can cut their fees and not increase them?