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Reforming probate for the twenty-first century

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Court and tribunal reform, Digital services, Family

[English] - [Cymraeg]

Applying for probate online offers professional applicants a convenient and simple way of working

Ian Bond is the current chair of the Law Society ‘Wills and Equity Committee’ and also heads the Trusts and Estate Department at leading Black Country firm Talbots Law, one of the pilot firms on the HMCTS probate pilot.

In this blog Ian explores the background to the current project, the involvement of the Law Society with HMCTS and his experiences in working with HMCTS to develop the pilot for the profession.

probate forms and phone on desk

Like most solicitors who deal with applications for grants of representation, I have long been familiar with the Non-Contentious Probate Rules 1987, SI 1987/2024 – better known as the 1987 Rules. These rules relate to all non-contentious probate business in England and Wales and predate the growth of the internet age.

The 1987 rules are one of the last bastions of Latin in the modern law of England and Wales and they are littered with legal jargon which can make them inaccessible to people without legal training who wish to obtain a grant or representation without using a solicitor.

Updating the rules

A first attempt to update the 1987 rules came in 2009 with a working group that produced a draft set of new rules in 2013 (the Draft Rules). The Draft Rules were clearer, but sadly, in most cases the substance remained the same.

The most radical proposal of the working group was the removal of the requirement to swear an oath before a grant of representation could be issued. Instead, they proposed that all applicants would complete and sign a statement of truth, in line with the way the Civil Procedure Rules work. Combined, this would have seen the application process entering the twenty-first century.

But the Draft Rules got no further than responses to a consultation, and the idea of reform slipped from the collective consciousness of the legal profession.

Reform opportunity

Fast-forward to the launch in 2016 of the HMCTS Reform Programme, an investment of more than £1bn to change and improve courts and tribunals services and to bring new technology and modern ways of working.

One area that was going to be reformed was probate. I expected it to pick-up where the 2013 Draft Rules left off. I could not have been more wrong.

The team from HMCTS wanted a user-led project to deliver an application process that was fully digitised so that in non-contested applications most of the process could be completed online.

Statutory instruments were laid before parliament to create a new online application procedure. The crucial difference to the 2013 committee was not to write the rules and then try to fit a process around them, but to design the process first and then embed that in the rules.

Testing a new service

Two separate digital probate pilots were created: one for professionals and the other for personal applicants. HMCTS requested (through the Law Society) solicitors’ firms to participate in the professional pilot and I volunteered my firm Talbots to be one of the 15 firms that took part.

The pilot started with the most simple and straightforward applications within a limited framework. This used a process by which firms input data about the deceased and submitted the application using an online portal.

Throughout, HMCTS sought feedback from those using the service and a constant loop of testing and feedback took the process forward. This helped to make sure the process was intuitive and met people’s needs.

While initially the project began as a way to automate the data-capture process and make the administration more streamlined, it quickly changed to be more ambitious: a complete transformation of the processes involved. Eventually features including updates, online payment and a statement of truth were added.

Slowly the service developed with feedback from the firms using it, and it was made available to all professional users at the end of 2019.

The service continues to be developed but it is clear to me that the online system provides many benefits to users and to HMCTS, not least greater speed and efficiency, without being detrimental to the outcome. The ability to look at the progress of the case online is invaluable and saves the need to contact the courts to check on progress.

By including mandatory information requirements means the online service reduces the number of ‘stops’ from HMCTS because it’s harder to make mistakes or leave out necessary information, which not only benefits HMCTS in terms of efficiency but crucially a faster resolution and smoother experience for the applicant as well.

Next steps

Naturally, the system had to start somewhere; it was never intended that from day one it could be used for every application mentioned in Tristram & Coote’s Probate Practice. It will take time for some of the more complex or unusual processes to be added, but it already allows for simple and straightforward applications to be submitted in minutes and more than 2,000 applications from legal representatives have been made online.

Meanwhile, some 60,000 plus unrepresented applicants have been able to use a separate service on GOV.UK that is free of the complex language that so blighted the 1987 Rules.

I know that some people may struggle to separate the new probate offering from the delays that hit the probate service in spring and summer 2019. These were not caused by the online service, but by several other factors combined and I’m pleased to say have long since been resolved.

Taken in isolation and away from those issues, the online service will be of significant benefit to the profession. I believe this will prove especially so during the coronavirus pandemic, when we are all faced with the challenge of remote working. For legal professionals like me, an online service means I can submit applications from home at the time of my choosing. For HMCTS, it means the applications can be processed by staff regardless of where they are based making delays much less likely than with paper-based processes that are hard to administer remotely.

It’s worth noting that at this stage, an original will and inheritance tax (IHT) forms still needs to be submitted, though this can be done through the post as well as by DX. The original will become a public record at the point of grant issue, and therefore must be retained by HMCTS. No online process can change this requirement.

As with anything new, it does take time to understand the online system and some practice to get the application correct and ready for submission. Some glitches will inevitably arise in the system but I have confidence that HMCTS now has robust processes in place for dealing with such issues to minimise disruption. The system, of course, can only develop with constructive feedback and I encourage my colleagues to provide this wherever they can.

[English] - [Cymraeg]

Diwygio profiant ar gyfer yr unfed ganrif ar hugain

Mae gwneud cais am brofiant ar-lein yn cynnig ffordd gyfleus a syml o weithio i geiswyr proffesiynol.

Ian Bond yw cadeirydd presennol ‘Pwyllgor Ewyllysiau ac Ecwiti’  Cymdeithas y Gyfraith ac mae hefyd yn bennaeth yr Adran Ymddiriedolaethau ac Ystadau yn y cwmni blaenllaw Talbots Law yng nghanolbarth Lloegr, un o’r cwmnïau sy’n rhan o gynllun peilot profiant GLlTEM.

Yn y blog hwn mae Ian yn archwilio cefndir y prosiect, ymwneud Cymdeithas y Gyfraith â GLlTEM a'i brofiadau wrth weithio gyda GLlTEM i ddatblygu'r cynllun peilot ar gyfer y proffesiwn.

Fel y rhan fwyaf o gyfreithwyr sy'n delio â cheisiadau am grantiau cynrychiolaeth, rwyf wedi bod yn gyfarwydd ers tro byd â Rheolau Profiant Annadleuol 1987, OS 1987/2024 – y cyfeirir atynt gan amlaf fel Rheolau 1987. Mae'r rheolau hyn yn berthnasol i bob busnes profiant annadleuol yng Nghymru a Lloegr ac maent yn rhagflaenu oes y rhyngrwyd.

Mae rheolau 1987 yn un o gadarnleoedd olaf yr iaith Ladin yng nghyfraith fodern Cymru a Lloegr ac maent yn dryfrith o jargon cyfreithiol a all beri eu bod yn anhygyrch i bobl heb hyfforddiant cyfreithiol sy'n dymuno cael grant neu gynrychiolaeth heb ddefnyddio cyfreithiwr.

Diweddaru’r rheolau

Gwnaed yr ymgais gyntaf i ddiweddaru rheolau 1987 yn 2009 gan weithgor a luniodd set ddrafft o reolau newydd yn 2013 (y Rheolau Drafft). Roedd y Rheolau Drafft yn gliriach, ond yn anffodus, yn y rhan fwyaf o achosion, ni fu newid i sylwedd y rheolau.

Cynnig mwyaf radical y gweithgor oedd dileu'r gofyniad i dyngu llw cyn y gellid rhoi grant cynrychiolaeth. Yn lle hynny, cynigiwyd y byddai pob ceisydd yn llenwi ac yn llofnodi datganiad o wirionedd, yn unol â'r ffordd y mae'r Rheolau Trefniadaeth Sifil yn gweithio. Drwy hynny byddai’r broses yn gweddu i'r unfed ganrif ar hugain.

Ond ni aeth y Rheolau Drafft ddim pellach na’r ymgynghoriad, a llithrodd y syniad o ddiwygio o ymwybyddiaeth y proffesiwn cyfreithiol.

Cyfle i ddiwygio

Ymlaen yn awr i lansiad Rhaglen Ddiwygio GLlTEM yn 2016, buddsoddiad o fwy na £1bn i newid a gwella gwasanaethau’r llysoedd a’r tribiwnlysoedd a chyflwyno technoleg newydd a ffyrdd modern o weithio. Roedd profiant yn un maes a oedd yn mynd i gael ei ddiwygio. Roeddwn i'n disgwyl i’r gwaith gychwyn lle y’i gadawyd gan Reolau Drafft 2013. Ond roeddwn ymhell ohoni.Roedd y tîm yn GLlTEM eisiau i brosiect a arweinir gan ddefnyddwyr gyflwyno proses gwneud cais wedi ei digideiddio'n llawn fel y gellid cwblhau'r rhan fwyaf o'r broses ar gyfer ceisiadau annadleuol ar-lein.Gosodwyd offerynnau statudol gerbron y senedd i greu gweithdrefn newydd ar gyfer gwneud ceisiadau ar-lein. Y gwahaniaeth hanfodol o gymharu â phwyllgor 2013 oedd nad ysgrifennu'r rheolau ac yna ceisio llunio proses o'u cwmpas a wnaed, ond dylunio'r broses yn gyntaf ac yna ymgorffori hynny yn y rheolau.

Profi’r gwasanaeth newydd

Crëwyd dau gynllun peilot profiant digidol ar wahân: un ar gyfer gweithwyr proffesiynol a'r llall ar gyfer ceiswyr personol. Gofynnodd GLlTEM (trwy Gymdeithas y Gyfraith) i gwmnïau cyfreithwyr gymryd rhan yn y peilot proffesiynol a threfnais fod fy nghwmni, Talbots yn gwirfoddoli i fod yn un o’r 15 cwmni a gymerodd ran yn y cynllun peilot. Dechreuodd y peilot gyda'r ceisiadau mwyaf syml ac elfennol o fewn fframwaith cyfyngedig. Defnyddiwyd proses lle'r oedd y cwmnïau'n cyflwyno data am yr ymadawedig ac yn cyflwyno'r cais gan ddefnyddio porth ar-lein. Trwy gydol yr amser, gofynnodd GLlTEM am sylwadau gan y rhai a oedd yn defnyddio'r gwasanaeth a thrwy gylch cyson o brofi a chynnig sylwadau aeth y broses yn ei blaen. Helpodd hyn i sicrhau bod y broses yn un reddfol ac yn diwallu anghenion pobl.

Er i’r prosiect ddechrau fel ffordd i awtomeiddio'r broses o gasglu data a symleiddio’r weinyddiaeth, newidiodd yn gyflym i fod yn fwy uchelgeisiol gan drawsnewid y prosesau dan sylw yn llwyr. Yn y pen draw, ychwanegwyd nodweddion fel diweddariadau, gwneud taliad ar-lein a datganiad o wirionedd.

Yn araf, datblygodd y gwasanaeth wrth i’r cwmnïau a oedd yn ei ddefnyddio gynnig sylwadau, ac roedd ar gael i bob defnyddiwr proffesiynol erbyn diwedd 2019.

Mae'r gwasanaeth yn parhau i gael ei ddatblygu ond mae'n amlwg i mi fod y system ar-lein yn darparu llawer o fuddion i ddefnyddwyr ac i GLlTEM, ac yn anad dim arall mae’n gyflymach ac yn fwy effeithlon, heb i hynny dynnu oddi wrth y canlyniad. Mae'r gallu i edrych ar gynnydd yr achos ar-lein yn amhrisiadwy ac yn ein harbed rhag gorfod cysylltu â’r llys i holi ynghylch cynnydd.

Mae cynnwys gofynion gwybodaeth orfodol yn golygu bod y gwasanaeth ar-lein yn lleihau oedi o ochr GLlTEM oherwydd ei bod yn anos gwneud camgymeriadau neu adael gwybodaeth angenrheidiol allan. Mae hyn o fudd i GLlTEM o ran effeithlonrwydd ond mae hefyd yn arwain at ddatrysiad cyflymach a phrofiad llyfnach i'r ceisydd.

Y camau nesaf

Yn naturiol, roedd yn rhaid i'r system ddechrau yn rhywle; ni fwriedid erioed y byddai modd ei defnyddio ar gyfer pob cais a grybwyllir yn Tristram & Coote’s Probate Practice. Bydd yn cymryd amser i ychwanegu rhai o'r prosesau cymhlethach neu fwy anghyffredin, ond mae eisoes yn caniatáu cyflwyno ceisiadau syml a digymhlethdod mewn ychydig funudau ac mae mwy na 2,000 o geisiadau gan gynrychiolwyr cyfreithiol wedi’u cyflwyno ar-lein.

Yn y cyfamser, mae dros 60,000 o geiswyr heb eu cynrychioli wedi gallu defnyddio gwasanaeth ar wahân ar GOV.UK sy'n rhydd o'r iaith gymhleth a oedd yn bresennol i’r rhai a oedd am ddefnyddio Rheolau 1987.

Gwn y bydd rhai pobl ei chael hi’n anodd gwahanu'r gwasanaeth profiant newydd oddi wrth yr oedi a darodd y gwasanaeth profiant yng ngwanwyn a haf 2019. Nid y gwasanaeth ar-lein oedd wrth wraidd yr oedi hwnnw, ond sawl ffactor arall gyda'i gilydd ac rwy'n falch o ddweud bod yr anawsterau wedi eu datrys ers amser maith.

O'i ystyried yn annibynnol ar y materion hynny, bydd y gwasanaeth ar-lein o fudd sylweddol i'r proffesiwn. Rwy'n credu y bydd hyn yn profi'n arbennig o wir yn ystod y pandemig coronafeirws, pan fyddwn ni oll yn wynebu'r her o weithio o bell. I weithwyr proffesiynol cyfreithiol fel fi, mae’r gwasanaeth ar-lein yn golygu y gallaf gyflwyno ceisiadau gartref unrhyw bryd. I GLlTEM, mae'n golygu y gall y ceisiadau gael eu prosesu gan staff mewn unrhyw leoliad gan wneud oedi'n llawer llai tebygol nag yn achos prosesau papur sy'n anodd eu gweinyddu o bell.

Mae'n werth nodi fod angen cyflwyno ewyllys wreiddiol a ffurflenni treth etifeddu (IHT) o hyd, er y gellir gwneud hyn trwy'r post yn ogystal â thrwy DX. Bydd y ddogfen wreiddiol yn dod yn gofnod cyhoeddus ar adeg cyhoeddi’r grant, ac felly mae'n rhaid i GLlTEM ei chadw. Ni all unrhyw broses ar-lein newid y gofyniad hwn.

Fel yn achos unrhyw beth newydd, mae'n cymryd amser i ddeall y system ar-lein a rhywfaint o arfer i gael y cais yn gywir ac yn barod i'w gyflwyno. Mae'n anochel y bydd rhai bylchau yn codi yn y system ond rwy’n hyderus fod gan GLlTEM brosesau cadarn ar gyfer delio â materion o'r fath er mwyn osgoi dryswch ac oedi. Dim ond drwy gyflwyno sylwadau adeiladol y gall y system ddatblygu, wrth gwrs, ac rwy'n annog fy nghydweithwyr i wneud hynny lle bynnag y gallant.

Mae Cymdeithas y Gyfraith wedi bod yn falch o gydweithio â GLlTEM yn ystod y prosiect a byddent yn argymell bod pob ymarferydd yn defnyddio'r porth ac yn buddsoddi amser i ymgyfarwyddo â’r broses newydd. Yn bersonol, mae defnyddio'r system ar-lein i wneud ceisiadau am brofiant wedi dod yn ail natur imi ac ni allwn ddychmygu dychwelyd at drefn bapur yr oes a fu.

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  1. Comment by John posted on

    Regarding PA1P, question 4.2 - May I ask why this information is now being requested?

    • Replies to John>

      Comment by HMCTS Communications Team posted on

      Dear John, thank you for the comment on Ian’s blog.
      Question 4.2 on the PA1P asks about the deceased’s blood and adoptive relatives. Applicants do not need to answer this question if the will is prima facie valid (that is, appears to be valid on first inspection) and if there is an executor applying.
      However, if we discover a problem with the will, applicants may be asked to provide this information to allow the registrar to proceed with the application and to determine entitlement.
      In some circumstances, providing this information from the outset could allow the registrars to determine whether NCPR Rule 12.3 could be used to dispense with evidence of execution.

  2. Comment by John posted on

    Superb, thank you. Unless there is an issue, we will ignore the section. I should be grateful if The District Probate Registrie's were so advised - they have a different view.