The Essex office at the centre of Britain’s probate grief

It’s an unassuming office in a quiet industrial estate in the town of Harlow. But based on the 2nd floor of this red-brick building in Essex is the company at the heart of distressing delays in the nation’s probate system.

For two years, bereaved families have endured long waits when applying to take control of their loved one’s estate after they die. 

Delays in probate applications mean families have to wait to access their lost loved one’s finances — and hold the sale of property in their estate.

Piling up: Stacks of boxes can be seen through the window of Exela Technologies’s office in Harlow, Essex

It has now emerged that work outsourced to this private firm in Essex in a £4.5 million contract is the root of many delays.

A report shown to Money Mail reveals a string of frustrating errors made at the Exela Technologies office, where staff are tasked with scanning wills and uploading digital copies onto a system to be processed.

Money Mail visited the site yesterday in search of answers and saw hundreds of boxes stacked up high inside offices.

Dozens of Exela employees were spotted coming in and out, and laughed when asked about the backlog.

When someone dies, the executor of a will is required to apply for a legal document known as a grant of probate to take control of their estate.

This is not always required if an estate is small or property is jointly owned, but more than 200,000 applications are made every year.

Government hands job of detecting bogus wills to ‘bulk scanning’ firm to save cash 

Lawyers and the civil servants’ union warned against outsourcing this work when news of the money-saving exercise emerged… read more here.

And until probate is granted, the executor cannot give out promised inheritances or allow family members to sell any property.

It used to take around two weeks to obtain a grant of probate by post. But in 2019 a new online system was introduced to speed up the process, but instead led to delays.

Online applications are now taking between five and six weeks on average, but many families say they have had to wait as long as six months or more.

Since January, solicitors have been told they must submit the vast majority of their clients’ probate applications using the new system. 

Executors are also encouraged to use the online system via the HM Courts and Tribunal Service’s (HMCTS) website.

Necessary documents, including the will, must then be posted to Exela in Harlow.

Heartache: Delays in online probate applications mean families have to wait to access their lost loved one’s finances - and hold the sale of property in their estate

Heartache: Delays in online probate applications mean families have to wait to access their lost loved one’s finances – and hold the sale of property in their estate

The firm was awarded the multi-million pound two-year contract by the Government in April 2018, and it has since been extended.

The company is charged with scanning the will and uploading it onto the new system. Most digital applications will then be sent to civil servants.

Teething problems with the new system in early 2019 led to a backlog, while proposed plans to hike probate fees – which were later shelved – caused further delays as families rushed to get applications in before charges increased.

Farewill Legal Services says there is now a three week wait for wills to be scanned while some wills aren’t being uploaded correctly. 

June Yap, of Farewill, says: ‘While it is understandable that there would be teething problems when the online system was new, we shouldn’t be seeing the high number of errors, stops and subsequent delays we are today.’

The hold-ups are also putting house sales in jeopardy.

Justin Flanagan managing director of Charles Eden estate agents says he is acting for two different couples who are buying properties tied up in the probate system. ‘The buyers are all ready to go and we’re right up to the point of exchange but we’re still waiting on probate.

‘One couple desperate to move is elderly and they don’t want to lose the stamp duty savings. They have had to move into a second lot of temporary accommodation while they wait for probate to complete,’ he adds.

Retired police officer Derek Harper had to wait 11 months for probate after Exela failed to properly scan his mother Kathleen’s will. 

He applied for probate last July, but heard nothing until November when an email said parts were missing from her will.

Derek, 63, who lives with his wife Sylvia in Cyprus, replied immediately and pointed out that the will was double-sided.

The probate was granted earlier this month after Money Mail approached the Ministry of Justice for a comment.

The Public and Commercial Services Union warned against the privatisation before the contract went to Exela.

Solicitors say many applications are also being stalled by HMCTS staff querying applications. Yet the internal report by Farewill found seven out of ten of its applications were unnecessarily ‘stopped’ for further checks.

The Government’s latest figures show online applications that have been stopped are taking almost double the average five week wait time.

An HMCTS spokesman says: ‘Our scanning service has helped us to keep running, with online applications now being granted in less than a week.’

Exela Technologies did not respond to requests for a comment.