The conveyancing “change genie” is out of the bottle – and it’s here to stay

There has been much commentary recently about the “next big thing” which will revolutionise and digitise the practice of conveyancing. Such innovation in our industry is to be welcomed, but conveyancers have a role to play in shaping their own future with appropriate external input.

Where are we now?

It is widely recognised that the everyday life of a conveyancer has changed dramatically as a result of the pandemic. There has been pressure from all sides and work levels have been sky-high. We have experienced significant change, much of which has been for the better.

There have been major developments in digital identity, sales protocols, digital registration, secure digital signatures, and other initiatives which are designed to make the homemoving process more efficient for clients and practitioners alike. Of course there are still issues to be improved, but the “change genie” is out of the bottle and will not be going back inside.

We are at a crossroads of sorts. Faced with a choice in such circumstances, it is suggested that the only decision is to go forward and embrace those initiatives which are complimentary to everyday practice and help influence that change.

At the same time, we must be wary of changes which may seem to be favourable but which on closer examination may result in conveyancers being less involved in the homemoving process. It has to be acknowledged that our conveyancing systems have been developed over a long period of time and generally have served us and society well. Can they be improved? Absolutely.

What is coming down the line?

There are a number of developments coming down the line which will make the home moving process more efficient.

Vendor disclosure

For those selling property now or contemplating the sale of their property, they could be completing their Property Information Questionnaires, ordering searches and title documents, and their conveyancer could be checking them over to get everything into ship-shape condition so that when a buyer is found legal commitment could follow very quickly.

It’s not that any of these things take a long time to gather, but it is the conflicting information during the conveyancing process and the lack of any consistency of information that generates additional costly enquiries, especially when they are gathered piecemeal over a period of time.

If all the information is available upfront then you avoid additional enquiries and also post-valuation queries because the valuer has the right information when they are inspecting the property. English local searches are on average ordered four-to-eight weeks after the memorandum of sale, on average take 10 days to come back and, where they result in a post-valuation query these, on average, take three weeks to be settled.

However, if the information is available at the point of sale and the valuer can see the information at the point of valuation then we can eradicate a minimum of five weeks delay.

A vendor disclosure system is operated in Denmark, Norway, and certain other jurisdictions to good effect and all the information is gathered at listing. Fall-throughs are so low that in some areas they do not even record them, and where they do it’s less than 2%. But it is also worth noting that in those countries, exchange of contracts can happen within as little as six working days. If only that were the case here.

But we don’t just have to look to other jurisdictions to see the impact. 22,000 properties are sold at auction every year. The legal pack means that the contract is made instantly on the coming down of the hammer. Data from an auction pack portal indicates that of the 200,000 properties which they added to the portal, one million people registered to view the pack and 22 million documents were downloaded. This demonstrates that prospective purchasers want to see salient information before lodging a bid.

Why would we not want to see a positive, proactive change to improve the homemoving process in this way? Is it really an option that we just carry on as we did before?

There is no reason why we cannot change the way in which we process conveyancing transactions. That entails us taking an objective assessment of the timetable as it applied pre-Covid-19 in light of IT and other developments and seeing what can be improved.

Funds transfer

Another much-talked about concept is focused on how to improve the transfer of funds to all relevant parties at completion of a transaction. We have seen how this is done in Australia.

There have, however, been a number of other related developments in this space in recent years and there is a choice of solutions available which should be examined. The various solutions are different but have the same general aim of saving time and money and seeking to reduce the risk of cyber fraud. In some cases, however, we would do well to think about what the effect might be on the role of the conveyancer going forward. Do we really want to be in a situation where control of the future of the conveyancing process lies in the hands of third parties with less experience of how we do business?

Digital transfer

This is, in many respects, is related to funds transfer. The UK Land Registries have made huge progress in their digital transformation programmes. The final digital solution, however, will require to be developed as a result of a collaborative process with conveyancers and the broader industry.

Land Registries have statutory obligations and, by necessity, they have to be careful. This is where conveyancers can be of assistance so that what is designed accords with conveyancing practice and not some external view of what it might be or what exists in another jurisdiction.

HLMR and Registers of Scotland are the de facto electronic lodging authorities, and they will develop their own regulatory frameworks to facilitate what is loosely called E-Conveyancing in the UK as their part of the digital revolution. They are the secure platforms on which business will be transacted and to which case management systems can connect.

Indeed, there is no reason why we cannot see digital identity and AML/VOI generally being incorporated therein and then shared on a trusted basis. There is no need for any other “satellite” platform to sit alongside our long-established and trusted public registries if case management systems can connect thereto.

Put simply, the long-established title registration process works and there is no need for anyone other than the Land Registries to take the lead on the changes required to introduce a fully automated digital process and we should support them in their endeavours.

In Australia, change was urgently required to a system that was largely paper-based and reliant on cheques being exchanged in settlement rooms. That has not been the position in the UK for years, so a wholesale “like for like” comparison cannot – and should not – be made with a jurisdiction which is fundamentally different from those in the UK.

That is not to say that we cannot learn from the Australian and any other comparative jurisdiction, however. We just need to be selective and ensure that we are in control of our own destiny.

So what needs to happen?

In the “new normal”, as referred to by our politicians following the pandemic, consumers are less likely to accept an answer from their adviser that “this is the way it has always been done”. Covid-19 was a “game changer” and society has been changed in many ways. The consumers of legal services are now “data hungry” and expect to be able to have access to their information and transactions in which they are involved.

That is as it should be. Even a digital settlement and registration system will only save time when buying a property if it is preceded by upfront information, available digitally, to the consumer and stakeholders. It is time for conveyancers to stand up and be counted and lead from the front, however. This is what happened in Denmark with considerable success. As in Denmark, conveyancers in the UK can shape their own future on the journey towards an “end-to-end” digital basis. When looking at proposed innovative changes, we just need to remember the old adage: “All that glitters is not necessarily gold”.


Article written by Beth Rudolf, Freelance Consultant to The Property Industry and Professor Stewart Brymer of the University of Dundee and the Scottish Conveyancers Forum. Both are participants in the Home Buying & Selling Group (Beth Rudolf is Co-Chair) –

The views expressed in this article are the personal views of the authors.

2 Responses

  1. Remember the HIP packs of old, those didn’t last either. There are so many issues with the Vendor Disclosure, if the property is on the market for a good length of time, what about time limit on searches, lender requirements in that regard? Will the valuer really have all the info at their finger tips, in an ideal world yes but this will just not happen that way. There is an issue with lengths of time in transaction, there are so many variations of how conveyancing firms work, some the high volume type can turn things around faster than the high street firms, the high volume firms have the it in place and some high st firms don’t even have case management in place, there is a disparity in what is essentially the same job and the same goal. Also there are a lack of experience in some high volume firms and that also adds to delays, experience and support is still required, it should not all be about tick boxes, education should be key. There is a lot wrong with the conveyancing process and until everyone is prepared to work together, taking account for differences and making allowances rather than playing the blame game then it will stay as it is.

  2. I’m not a great fan of the “IT” will save us line. In many ways I think IT and the reliance on programs has created its own problems through dumbing down the conveyancing process and creating a myth that it is only a process that anyone could do. Good conveyancing requires, clear legal thinking.
    On the other hand I am a strong advocate of the “get it sorted before you market the property” school of thought. This doesn’t require IT. However it does require a change in mindset of estate agents. Getting Title checked and completing the relevant forms fully and ensuring all documents are gathered together is in fact within the spirit of the current Law Society protocol.
    The objections of sellers (and estate agents) may be overcome by indicating that this will speed up the process.

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