The recent Law Society report covered three new online portals for courts and tribunal services:
- Probate services
- Damages claims
- Family public law
I can’t speak for damages or family public law, but I’ve been administering estates for almost a decade. I’ve been through some of the good times, where you could get a grant in 2-3 weeks, and the bleak days of 2018, when the system was flooded following the proposal to increase probate fees.
Back in 2019/20, I was involved in the pilot for the new online system and had the opportunity to visit the Birmingham Courts and Tribunals Service Centre to see “behind the curtain”. In general, I’m in favour of the online system, as well as innovation and progress more broadly. While there may be some stumbles along the way, modern problems need modern solutions, and the paper application process was no longer fit for purpose.
The Law Society makes three main recommendations going forwards (and I would suggest a fourth).
- Commit to ensuring future online systems are user designed with strong collaborative working between users and stakeholders
- Include Application Programming Interface (API) in existing and future online systems
- Introduce a minimum service level standard which includes comprehensive staff training programme
- Commit to a standardised approach to data transparency and data sharing of online systems
- Introduce a robust communication system with clear routes for urgent matters
- Introduce a high-profile resource with accessible information and training
I strongly support the inclusion of API in future systems. At present you can use software to generate your Inheritance Tax Returns (IHT), your initial letters, your estate accounts and, in general, all correspondence. Everything, except for a legal statement. Integrating the last part of the process has the potential to promote productivity and cut down on legal time (and therefore fees).
Designing systems with the end user in mind must be a starting point, and there are parts of the system that could be more user friendly. For those who haven’t used the online system, if you want to change something, like the value of the estate for IHT purposes, you then have to go through every subsequent section of the application. You can’t just edit the one field you need. However, I can also see that consensus on the system itself would be a challenge. With a few quality-of-life improvements, such as being able to edit specific parts, I do not see that the current system would need to change significantly.
If we could look to add some API and get a group of users involved in beta testing new parts, we could streamline the process. I suggest the Law Society is best placed to take this forward, as they can establish a group to test new features and can reach a vast section of the legal profession for feedback.
The recommendation to provide a minimum service level and a comprehensive staff training programme would likely be an ambitious goal. When we visited in 2022, one of the main challenges facing the Probate Registry seemed to be recruitment and sparing the staff to train new joiners, while attempting to ensure staff retention on top of all of that.
Who do you use to train the staff? Do you take the experienced staff who would usually deal with the more complex applications, if so, who deals with those applications in the interim?
Ultimately, it may in fact be the knock-on effect of the lack of registrars that has been around since early 2020 that’s now causing larger issues. With more experienced staff, more could be spared to train and more could deal with the complex issues.
Data sharing, however, is something I think that they could improve. An example is the date of the applications they’re currently working on. They have the information internally, so why can’t that be published? It would certainly save time on the phones from people calling to check – for both the staff at the Registry and the practitioners. Even if it’s just an update every Friday on where they are that week, that would start to set expectations and enable resource to be diverted elsewhere.
A robust communication system with clear routes for urgent matters is a potentially hard solution to make workable, not least because people have different definitions of urgent. We all want the best for our clients, so there would always be the temptation to mark an application as urgent, which just shifts more applications into the urgent queue.
I agree with the need for a high-profile resource with accessible information and training for those using the system. It’s hard to blame end user error if you take no steps to educate the end user.
This leads into my addition to the recommendations made.
There are two sides to the online portals, and it would be wrong for us not to consider our role in this. Linked to the communication point, lawyers need to take ownership for the issues they are causing with the system.
As part of the tour of the Probate Registry in 2022, we sat with the case managers. Every hold that was placed on a case was because of an error made in submitting the application. The applicant said that there was a codicil, but it wasn’t enclosed. The applicant included a photocopy of the will rather than the original. The applicant sent an unsigned legal statement. All of these required a case handler to review the file, check the details, and then put a stop on the application and follow up with the applicant. As a profession, we must take ownership of our part of this and the delays our errors cause.
This is not a call to vigilantism to punish practitioners, and we’re all human – mistakes happen. Instead, genuine constructive feedback can and should be given to practitioners to avoid repeat mistakes. When we apply, we submit our name and email address alongside the application. Use this to provide feedback.
I would therefore like to add to the recommendations list:
- Introduce a system to feed back errors to users to promote training and development, and explain why cases were stopped/delayed
The intention behind this is to genuinely educate users in how best to use the systems. In the days of paper applications, when you drafted an executor’s oath, you would usually be supervised, any errors would be corrected, and you would learn. This should be no different.
I welcome the digitisation of the probate process, and certainly, when the system works well, it works very well. In one case, we were able to get a grant on an intestate estate in less than a week.
I firmly believe the online system can and will provide benefits to the profession and the public. With everything, however, there is room for improvement. From API to communications to education for users, my best hope for the probate process is collaboration.