The work of the probate service is one of the first to be centralised into an HMCTS CTSC or call centre. HMCTS maintain that a “reformed” probate service will result from the development of an “improved digital service” and that ”significant user research has taken place with probate applicants and staff to design, develop and test the new online application form to ensure that it meets user needs.” This is not a statement our hard working, dedicated members who work in the probate service recognise, indeed quite the opposite. They maintain that attempts to advise, offer feedback and to suggest solutions to problems have been ignored. If it does not fit their model, HMCTS are not interested.
It perhaps explains why none of the current probate staff have applied to work in a CTSC, including those for whom it is geographically close. Hundreds if not thousands of years of experience of a very specialised area of work will be lost almost overnight. Those working in a CTSC advise PCS they have only had one week of training.
PCS has repeated asked HMCTS to meet its own policy obligations under both the Collective Engagement Framework and the Managing Organisational Change Framework and to enable PCS to consult with our members so that we can influence decisions before they are made and to ensure that if members offer an alternative, they are duly considered and if they are rejected, a full written explanation is given.
Like the resulting of Magistrates’ court cases, the probate service is being changed to meet an MoJ model that it simply does not suit. In recent weeks between 52-74% of applications made have been stopped due to issues that arise from a digital process that is not fit for purpose. HMCTS refuses to recognise these figures. Most stops are not due to the complexity of the case but are caused by simple issues borne out of the need to impose a paperless environment in a world where paper ensures authenticity.
The latest stop for digital cases is regarding the uploading of a death certificate on to the paperless case management system. One member advised us that at least 50% of certificates do not meet the criteria agreed by registrars to protect against fraud.
Poor instructions given to applicants by those who have designed the digital application are also responsible for a significant number of stops. Regularly applicants apply under someone else’s email address or multiple applicants use the same email address along with the omission of middle names for both the deceased and themselves as applicants. Instead of the digital process being quicker and easier it has become slower and more onerous for both applicants and our members.
Proceeding at risk
Our members are rightly concerned about the shortly to be introduced process of will scanning by an outsourced provider. Our members are responsible for establishing that they have the last will and testament submitted by the applicants. This requires a significant amount of forensic checking. The scan quality of the wills being uploaded is insufficient for examination. Our members are being required to make decisions based on a document they cannot see and on information provided by the inexperienced staff of a private company who will have targets related to profit and who are not bound by the civil service code. This could lead to a grant of probate being made in circumstances where the original will has been revoked or destroyed by the testator.
As HMCTS seek to reduce staff further and close the registries our members maintain that the system is likely to implode. Payment issues identified by our members last year still have not been resolved.
PCS has raised what we believe amounts to the fundamental destruction of the probate service with the Justice Select Committee. HMCTS has neither consulted upon this “reform” nor evaluated changes made so far. We have asked to be able to give oral evidence to supplement the concerns we have raised.