Concerns over potential for abuse by ‘unscrupulous applicants’
20 September 2017
Solicitors will be invited to join the courts service’s private beta testing stage for online probate from this autumn, Solicitors Journal can reveal.
The online probate application form entered into private beta testing on 15 June for personal applicants in simple cases.
“The project is still on target to launch into public beta for personal applicants from the beginning of 2018 and as soon as this is launched anybody will be able to access the form,” a member of the project team told the journal.
The private beta stage was opened to personal applicants on 30 August. In an earlier blog post, Paul Downer, the service manager responsible for the project, said the private beta phase for personal applicants would run for six months to December 2017.
The change involves an amendment to the existing PA1 probate application form and at present the service can only be used where only one executor applies. In addition, the original will must be available and not have been supplemented by a codicil.
The deceased must also have had their permanent home in England and Wales or intended to return to England and Wales to live permanently.
Not all applicants who meet the criteria, however, are allowed onto the beta testing. Those interested in taking part are instructed to contact HMRC, who will consider whether to direct them online based on whether they meet the criteria and whether the weekly user quota has been met.
Asked whether Solicitors Journal could be provided with a link to the online form, the HMCTS team replied: “The number of people recruited to use the service was restricted in order to manage the number of applications being received online.
“Applicants continue to be recruited via the HMRC helpline; however, the project continues to manage the number of people recruited. Only those applicants who meet the necessary recruitment criteria and are recruited via the helpline are sent the link to the form.”
The weekly cap, they said, was “to ensure we can monitor the applications effectively” and it was “a variable internal target that changes from week to week”.
The online application form includes a new digital statement of truth which removes the need for swearing an oath in person. Applicants are also able to pay the probate fee online, and a ‘save and return’ function allows users to start an application and complete it at a later stage.
As per current rules, applicants need to provide the original will and two photocopies, the death certificate, associated inheritance tax forms and figures, and any other supporting documents relevant to the case such as a renunciation form.
Future plans include making the service available in more complex cases involving multiple executors and intestacy cases.
Already, however, lawyers are warning that the new service could open the door to fraudsters.
Esther Woodhouse, probate lawyer at Roythornes, said while the move would provide welcome enhancement to procedure, “I am concerned the system could be abused by unscrupulous applicants if there are no effective safeguards in place to protect vulnerable people and their assets.”
Woodhouse said robust measures would need to be put in place to ensure applications were only being made by those with the authority to do so. “This is very important particularly if an oath is no longer required to be sworn in person by either a solicitor and/or commissioner for oaths,” she warned.
She also pointed out that the expected reduction in administration costs was at odds with the proposed rise in probate court fees. Although officially dropped in April, there are fears that the proposals could resurface as part of the range of measures to make the courts system pay for itself.
“It does not correlate with the proposed hike in probate court fees, which if imposed will cause financial burden to many bereaved families,” Woodhouse commented. “I would have thought the new online system would lead to a reduction in probate court fees, and would urge the government to reconsider its proposal to put these costs up.”
This story was first published on Solicitors Journal on 20 September 2017 and is reproduced by kind permission