by Di Bouglas

Following the last sessions in April, a further meeting of users was held today at First Avenue House, home of the Principal Probate Registry and London search room. There was very little new information, but the following is a summary of what was discussed.

John Briden will be leaving on 31 May 2012. There is no direct replacement for him at the moment. We were introduced to Mark Burdon and Di Rice who are based (I think) at Newcastle and Oxford registries and oversee the northern and southern areas respectively. They will be taking over from John for now.

Despite some concerns voiced by users, we were told that there are no current plans to close the London search room, although there were also no guarantees that it will remain open in the long term. Plans are being developed to drastically reduce the need for a face-to-face interview in order for a probate to be granted. The current oath will be replaced by a ‘statement of truth’ in non-contentious cases, which will require only a signature. If the numbers of searchers is also reduced following the introduction of the online calendar, then clearly it will be difficult to see why the premises now in use on the 7th floor at First Avenue House will still be required. There was no mention of providing a service for those who cannot or do not want to use the online calendar.

As suggested previously, the one-hour copy service will not be reintroduced. It is likely that the current 48 hour service will become 24 hour, once its delivery can be guaranteed. The postal service for London orders might be reduced from 10 working days to perhaps 3-4 days. A review of the charging system might result in a higher fee being charged for a faster service. This seems to be a new idea. We have always understood that the cost would always be the same, irrespective of production speed. The counter clerks will still have some discretion to produce an urgent copy in an hour, where they can be persuaded of a pressing need.

A multi-tier system might be considered for online orders as well. We were told that the current delivery time for orders produced via Leeds was three weeks and that this was now being met in almost 100% of cases. This is an acknowledged improvement on the problems experienced when Ancestry first put the calendars online and orders placed through Leeds (and previously York) jumped from 1500 to 4500 a month. The level is now about 1100 a month, with no apparent rise yet noticed since Ancestry’s latest increase in their coverage to 1858-1966 just last week. It is hoped that systems will be in place to cope with any increase in demand when the online service begins. A ‘soft’ launch is planned, to try and avoid a ‘1901 census’ type system failure.

One thing which was revealed today was that the Probate service is charged differing amounts by their archive provider, Iron Mountain, depending on how quickly a copy is required. They have three levels: 45 minutes, 24 hours and 10 days. So clearly the current £6 we pay for any copy is not based on cost recovery, or our fees would also have to be tiered to reflect the differing fees which are paid to Iron Mountain.

It is still hoped that the online calendar will start rolling out later in 2012, with the Soldiers’ Wills being the first to be released, followed by the most recent period (1996 to the present). The method of searching the older, scanned calendar books will be by year and then a number of letters of the surname. This has now been increased from the first three letters of the name. What to has not been decided, but 7-8 characters was mentioned as a possibility. The final decision will depend on cost. Apparently, the more letters included in the search, the more expensive it is to set up.

Once the online calendar is finished, there are plans to make it available under licence, including the Soldiers’ wills, so it is likely that versions will appear on the big data providers’ websites. The end date of licenced calendars has not yet been decided, but very recent data will not be included. Following on from this, consideration may be given to scanning older wills and grants. Currently, only 2004+ and the Soldiers’ Wills have been scanned completely.

We were assured that the online calendar will be totally complete. In other words, checks have been made to ensure that every page of each book has been scanned. The books used include all annotations and folio numbers. The online version will also serve as one of the Probate Service’s own copies of the full calendar, so they need it to be reliable.

Willfinder will continue to be used in the search room. In any case, it is the system used to by staff to order the copies from Iron Mountain. They have the capability to override any apparent negative search result and it is possible that this might be extended to users, in order to further automate the ordering system at First Avenue House.

Further meetings for users were promised, with another perhaps in about September, prior to the online launch, so that the system can be discussed in more detail. There might also be the possibility of involving users in beta testing.

Oh yes, and we were also promised that the bell on the cashier’s counter will be fixed and replacement bulbs will be stocked so that both fiche readers will be available for use! We shall see…….

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