By Frances Traynor
11th December 2017
Mon 16 Oct 2017 by Tony Lilleystone
Many buyers and sellers think that the way solicitors carry out conveyancing has changed little since Dickensian days. Law firms may now have telephones and many of them seem to have computers, but buying and selling a home can still take several months to complete.
So are solicitors falling behind the times and failing to grasp the benefits of digital? Much work is being done to bring conveyancing into the digital age, and speed up property transfers. But at present the adoption of digital methods in conveyancing is patchy – most solicitors have embraced the digital age to a greater or lesser extent but others do seem to be stuck in the past. There have been various attempts to produce end-to-end digital conveyancing, or econveyancing.
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To be successful a system will have to be adopted by all organisations involved in conveyancing, not just solicitors.
This highlights one of the problems of bringing conveyancing into the digital age. Solicitors have to work with many other people and organisations – other solicitors, local councils, government agencies, estate agents – many of whom have either not adopted electronic systems or use systems that are incompatible with others used by solicitors.
However the situation is now improving rapidly. Most solicitors who handle conveyancing work are now seeing the benefit of adopting software systems which can integrate information with those used by the Land Registry and other stakeholders. Those who are still holding out will either have to adopt the new technology or lose work.
One leading light in the digital revolution is the Land Registry, the government agency which is responsible for maintaining the register of property titles and recording changes of ownership. Over the last twenty years they have digitised the register and are continually introducing new ways of doing things. For some years it has been possible for solicitors and others to download copies of a registered title directly, rather than having to post off an application form and wait for a reply. So a solicitor can now obtain full details of a seller's title immediately he has been instructed and prepare a contract to send to the buyer's solicitors.
Over the last year the Registry has brought forward software so that solicitors can now submit applications for registration of transfers and mortgages online. This makes it possible for a registration of change of ownership to be completed within a day or so after the purchase has been completed.
But the workings of the Registry are of little interest to most buyers and sellers and indeed they have had little impact on the overall speed of conveyancing. Many of the other processes involved in conveyancing could certainly be speeded up, but this often depends on other people or organisations taking action.
For example, sellers are always asked to complete a property information form for the buyer's benefit. It should be possible for solicitors to send the form electronically so that a seller can complete it online and it can then be sent on to the buyer's solicitors. But not all clients are computer-savvy or prefer not to send sensitive information in this way so a paper copy has to be posted, wasting time. The searches which have to be made with local councils can often be handled electronically nowadays. But not all councils have digitised their records, meaning that delays still occur while they collate the necessary information from various departments. Councils collect substantial fees for these searches but many argue that they cannot afford to computerise their records because of government cut-backs.
If the property being sold is a flat then it is likely to have a leasehold title. This means that the buyer's solicitor will require a great deal of information from the landlord or managing agent. A standardised enquiry form has recently been agreed between the Law Society and a number of organisations representing commercial landlords and agents.
But while some larger landlords and agents have computerised records which enable them to reply quickly many take weeks or even longer to supply the required information. Buyers and sellers do like to be kept informed of progress and this is an area where solicitors could take advantage of the digital age. Telephone calls can be useful but take time and can be expensive. Email and texts may be a quicker solution and many firms now use these.
Security is a major issue for all legal work, especially conveyancing. Solicitors have always done their best to ensure that confidential information is not divulged to others. But they are coming under repeated cyber-attacks from criminals which increases their reluctance to use what are seen as insecure methods of communication. One of the difficulties with adopting some form of electronic conveyancing has always been the need for important documents such as contracts, transfers and mortgages to be physically signed – what is often known as a 'wet signature' - and then passed on to other solicitors and the Land Registry.
Several methods of electronic signature are now available, but the problem is still whether these are sufficiently secure. There would certainly be concerns if criminals could forge a owner's signature electronically on a property transfer or mortgage, so that the owner lost the property or found themselves saddled with a massive mortgage they knew nothing about.
Much work is being done to bring conveyancing into the digital age, and speed up property transfers. But it has to be realised that it is unlikely that we will see 'instantaneous' transactions for most cases.
Delays are still going to occur through no fault of solicitors – sellers waiting until they have got a buyer before looking for another home to buy, buyers who have problems getting a mortgage, surveys which reveal hidden problems, or just someone changing their mind and pulling out! So don't expect miracles even if full e-conveyancing is introduced.
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