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Users complain of missing data in UK wills search service

Back online after a week, but users not impressed with tech refresh

Users have complained of missing data and trouble logging in after the UK government updated its old probate search service.

Run by HM Courts & Tribunals Service (HMCTS), the probate and will search service is a handy tool for hunting down probate records for documents and wills in England and Wales. It can be useful for working out who has the legal right to deal with a deceased person's property as well as a being a boon for researchers tracing family history.

A new probate system was adopted in 2019, which resulted in a huge backlog of cases and plenty of unnecessary stress for all involved. Things have since settled down so now is time for the search services to shine. Right?

As last month drew to a close, a Register reader spotted the old probate services online system had been taken offline.

Only a terse message noting that the service was unavailable due to maintenance was shown. A promise the service would be resumed by 4 February was also displayed, meaning that it would be down for more than a week.

We're all for well-planned maintenance windows, but a week seems somewhat excessive.

As it transpired, the service stayed down past the promised 4 February date, according to another reader, who complained about the new "very clunky" and "unintuitive interface." More seriously, data seemed to be missing, both from user accounts and results.

A thread of woe on a genealogy forum details the problems faced by users, including orders for wills on the old site not always appearing on the new site, difficulties logging in, and search options not behaving as they should.

One user, Dave Annal of Lifelines Research, posted a video detailing the extent of the borkage. Annal's walkthrough was certainly tic-inducing for any database administrator as he attempted to search for the name "Pinches", but only got a result after searching for "Pin" and hunting through the pages of results until Pinches turned up.

And those results? Not sorted either.

"It's really not good," understated Annal. We'd have to agree – this seems like pretty basic functionality, so why it should have gone live in such a severely broken state makes one question what, if any, testing was done prior to unrolling the service for users.

The UK government had previously outsourced the index and ordering service to Iron Mountain, and the company has a page on its website about its work as a service provider of off-site records management for the Probate Service for over 15 years.

On its website, Iron Mountain says the archive dates back to 1858 and comprises more than 41 million records, to which 250,000 are added per year. Customers can order scanned wills from the archive, with "substantially enhanced accessibility to historic files", and "significantly reduced service lead times."

However, neither HMCTS nor Iron Mountain could confirm who was in charge of the current probate search refresh.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: "We are working with our supplier to urgently solve any technical issues."

As we understand it, the plan was for the new site to perform the same functions as the old site, with some tweaks to the calendar and to meet accessibility standards. It was developed based on the existing user requirements and was testing was performed after each development sprint. Gotta love that agile development methodology, right?

The Register contacted Iron Mountain to get its take, but it has yet to respond.


At the time of writing, the service continues to exhibit a distinct wobble, with a warning to users that engineers behind the scenes were "currently working on the Sign In service." ®

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