Probate backlog ‘getting worse’ despite extra staff, legacy expert warns charities

05 Jul 2023 News

The backlog of cases at the probate service appears to be “getting worse” despite efforts to clear it, a Legacy Foresight economist has said.

Speaking at ILM annual conference on Monday, Jon Franklin said that HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS) “hasn’t been clearing as many cases as it was at this time last year”, with an estimated backlog of around 50,000 cases in the first quarter of 2023. 

This is despite HMCTS recruiting more than 100 employees between November 2022 and March this year to help clear the backlog. 

Civil Society has approached HMCTS for comment. 

Backlog getting worse 

Franklin said that HMCTS has brought in “an influx of new staff” but “it’s taking time to train them up and it’s consuming a lot of the other staff’s time to get people trained up and get them in a position where they can help clear the backlog of cases so they’re not clearing as many cases as they were [at this time last year]”.

He said: “Our estimate is that that backlog [is] above and beyond the normal caseload the courts and tribunals service deals [with and] is likely around 50,000 cases in terms of the total backlog they’ve got there. That puts that peak up again at the same kind of levels we saw back in 2019 when it was at its highest level. 

“This is quite a big backlog, this makes quite a big difference. To put that into context, that’s around 23,000 requests, which is around £650m worth of income for charities. This is substantial, it makes a difference to what charities can deliver on a day-to-day basis.” 

He added that there has been a large increase in applications for probate, with “around 6,500 more applications for probate in the first quarter of this year than there were in the same quarter last year”. 

A ‘challenging’ next few years

Franklin said that HMCTS is “trying to invest in this and expand their capacity” to clear the backlog.

However, he said: “The latest data available is for May and the number of cases cleared was still lower than it was in May last year so we’re still not seeing that additional resource translate into [the backlog being cleared].

“I’ve heard anecdotally that charities were starting to see numbers of notifications pick up during June so maybe that’s an early sign that things will be getting better.”

He said that the house price issue and the backlog mean that “we’re likely to have a pretty challenging next two or three years”.  

“We’re not expecting legacy income to drop off a cliff, but it is going to be a tricky next couple of years for the sector.”

Optimism that market will grow in future

Franklin said that “we’re still pretty optimistic that the legacy market will grow” in the near future.

Legacy Foresight’s recent market outlook predicts that the income for charities from this source will grow from £3.8bn in 2022 to £4.2bn in 2027 and £5.2bn in 2032. 

Franklin said in the long run “house prices tend to bounce back” and “the market tends to grow pretty quickly once it starts to catch up”. 

He added: “In the meantime, we also have an increasing number of deaths due to our ageing population and that I guess is a bit of a protective factor.

“Whilst the economy is not doing so well, we would expect the number of deaths to be increasing over time and that means capturing more gifts for charities.”

However, he said that while the legacy market is expected to grow, it will be so at a much slower rate than in previous years. 

“If we look at this in percentage terms, over the last 10 years, from 2012 to 2022, that’s around a 70% increase in legacy income,” he said.

“If we look out over the next 10 years, that’s around half the amount [34%] and that reflects the poor economic environment, which will act as a kind of drag on that growth over the time. But things will look a bit better the 10 years after that as the economy picks up […] We expect things to grow by 46% between 2032 and 2042.” 

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