Nearly a decade ago a Law Commission/Land Registry report described a future landscape for conveyancing. The report, entitled Land Registration for the twenty-first century, a conveyancing revolution, set out a vision in which users of the e-conveyancing network could transact with each other securely, users could share information electronically, errors and discrepancies would be identified and rectified at the earliest possible stage, electronic deeds and documents would be signed with electronic signatures. Registration would happen much more quickly than in the paper world, so protecting the interests of landowners at an earlier stage. It felt very much like automated conveyancing and some worried that Land Registry wanted to take over the role of conveyancers.
Since then advances have been made but there have also been failures. Land Registry has trialled ideas such as electronic signatures in 2005 and the Chain Matrix (which it later abandoned). It has also introduced new electronic registration services for a wide range of its customers. The benefits of automation have to an extent occurred with fewer errors and quicker processing. Land Registry plans to continue to improve its current range of e-services.
Land Registry portal
Land Registry has introduced a secure website platform from which to launch all existing and future electronic services. This platform is called the Land Registry portal. The portal is a common interface which provides a personalised, single point of access to web-based applications and information. Current e-services include Information Services and Network Services. Information Services are made up of official copies, searches and enquiries and include Land Charge searches, Network Services are for the creation and lodgement of electronic documents.
Through the Registry’s e-services, property professionals are provided with instant access to more than 22 million registers of title covering the great majority of properties in England and Wales. Customers can get results online for Searches of Whole with Priority and Land Charges Searches (Private Individuals and Limited Companies) and currently make simple non-dispositionary applications.
Electronic Discharge (e-DS1) has also been introduced as an alternative method of discharge. It needs no supporting application or paperwork: it constitutes an application in itself and automatically removes the charge from the register. Electronic Discharges (EDs) is a machine-to-machine service that enables very high volume lenders to remove legal charges from the land register. Following redemption of a legal charge affecting registered land, a lender’s computer updates the Land Register automatically. Once validated electronically, the charge and any associated entries are cancelled. Many large lenders are now using this service, which was introduced in 2003. A lender using electronic discharges results in faster registrations for conveyancers when all runs smoothly.
Currently in pilot are Electronic Charges (e-CSF) and the Business Gateway. The release of e-charges signals the first electronic deed ever to be introduced and simply requires an electronic signature by the borrower to be legally valid. When a conveyancer prepares an electronic charge, the borrower signs the deed electronically via Land Registry’s system. The Land Registry maintains that the electronic signature is more secure than its paper counterpart and ensures that the data cannot be disowned, and ensures the deed’s authenticity. However, Martin Bourke of O’Neill Patient Solicitors who participated in the pilot disagrees: “We expressed in our meeting with the Chief Land Registrar that ECSFs are in theory a good idea, but in the current form are an administrative nightmare for Conveyancers – ultimately making the transaction a longer and slower process. We do not see any security benefits for the property owners when charges are granted under ECSF, in fact we believe they are more susceptible to fraud in comparison to the traditional paper format. Lenders uptake of E-CSF has been very slow, the pilots took place over a year ago but nothing in the industry has changed.”
Feedback from the pilot participants is being analysed by the Land Registry and the service tweaked before roll out as a business as usual.
The Business Gateway
The first release of the Business Gateway is aimed at the remortgage market. It enables conveyancers to submit Official Searches and request Official Copies (and extracts of the copy) of the title from the Land Registry directly from their Casework Management Systems. It also allows them to create the electronic charge, which the borrower will sign electronically. The solution uses an interface to communicate between the Conveyancer and Land Registry via the internet.
Michael Lennon at O’Neill Patient is more positive about the Business Gateway, stating that “The Land Registry Business Gateway has enabled us to streamline our conveyancing processes even further. We can electronically obtain official copies of the register, priority searches and bankruptcy searches in seconds without any user intervention. Our Case Management system has the ability to read and store the information returned. This improves efficiency, reduces costs, and is kinder to the environment as paper copies are no longer required. This is a must for every conveyancing business. The Business Gateway is a Web Services based platform that allows Conveyancers and Search providers to obtain electronic information from Lang Registry with minimal human input. The services offered are intended to grow over time. We have made the most of obtaining relevant data so far and look forward to working with Land Registry as the range of services continues to grow.”
However, Mr Lennon adds, “The £7K yearly cost may prove to be a barrier to smaller Conveyancers looking to connect directly to Land Registry. We expect this gap may be closed by Search providers acting as a middle layer between the Conveyancer and the Business Gateway, but wait with interest to see how this market develops.”
Land Registry is also going ahead with development work on the design of electronic transfers. Initially the transfer will be limited to transfers on sale of the whole of one registered title by private individuals to private individuals. Where a transfer attracts Stamp Duty Land Tax (SDLT) Land Registry will provide a system to enable conveyancers to demonstrate that a SDLT return has been successfully submitted to HMRC.
Brendan O’Brien of Breeze and Wyles comments that “With the Public Sector cuts likely to take effect over the next few months the Land Registry’s focus is likely to be on generating more revenue. I expect the development of e-conveyancing will be placed into abeyance for the medium term. With the failure of the chain matrix there may be some reticence about spending further capital sums to provide services that will only provide a long term outcome.”
e-conveyancing is changing the way that conveyancers are working. The largest and most technically skilled conveyancers are using the xml extracts of data to semi automate title checking. Conveyancers that are not technically minded will have to learn a few new skills and procedures or find they are unable to compete. e-conveyancing is progressing more slowly than many would hope but it is becoming quicker, easier, and more reliable.
Chris Harris has over 15 years experience as a property lawyer and panel manager. He is editor of Today’s Conveyancer, a new free online newspaper designed to help conveyancers understand the changing nature of their work and to provide an independent voice for conveyancers.