E-conveyancing – fact or fiction?

When the government published its paper, Improving the home buying and selling process, in April 2019, it made a clear request for technological improvements. The whole lifecycle, from estate agent listing to land registration faces modernisation, with technology led innovation such as digital signatures, ID verification and the adoption of e-conveyancing combined with a closer monitoring of the people involved and the progress of the transaction.

In this article we take a look at the improvements so far and provide a view as to the changes that are likely to be coming next.

Digitising the land register

HMLR has the ambition “to become the world’s leading land registry for speed, simplicity and an open approach to data” and in order to help to achieve this it has initiated a number of partnership programs which are aimed at showcasing the possibilities that technology solutions can bring through its Digital Street project and also empowering start up organisations through the Geovation Hub which is a joint program with OS.

There are some key challenges that need to be faced to speed up the registration process, as whilst the HMLR have focused on electronic services and the removal of paper from the process over the last 15 years, we now need to look at what needs to happen to automate the processes within the LR and remove the need for physical signatures.  The two key areas to investigate here are digital signatures and this cannot be decoupled from the need for digital identities.

Both the Digital Street program and the Geovation Hub have generated a great deal of interest from companies with an interest in solving these problems, ranging from embryonic startup where the term Data Scientist appears to be the norm, to the larger well-established organisation that are trying to work out what role they have to play. Having participated in some of their workshops it is encouraging to see a cross section of the industry represented from technology and service providers, to forward thinking law firms and lenders. Refreshingly these sessions are not just talking shops but are often followed up by hackathons where solutions are prototyped in a day.

There are some key technological advances that are taking place, not least the implementation of  Blockchain solutions and open banking standards but you have to question if any of these will be widely adopted without legislation or government funding.  A significant challenge in today’s environment is that there is a plethora of technology led widgets, and businesses, whose aim is to solve a small part of the overall problem.  Is it possible to truly commercialise a small part of the problem?  I think the real challenge is how we can join the widgets together to create a seamless journey for the homemover and in order to do this we need to consider data standards and compliance around an API framework.  This is, however, where legislation then gets in the way, as homemovers are forced to start bits of their journey using different providers and specifically around ID checking, this can lead to multiple checks through multiple providers.

Upfront data and early title information

So far, we have looked at what needs to happen to speed up the registration process.  At this point the homemover has the keys and is in their property of course – or is very close at least.  The real stresses of the process exist far earlier on – namely about 14 weeks earlier on in today’s terms when the transaction begins, and anywhere in between.  

There is a swell of momentum beginning to look at upfront information, this includes the ID check, but also uses other information sources such as the OC1 register from the HMLR.  These two early steps allow us to determine who you are, and your relationship to the property you are trying to sell.  Whilst these could be considered compliance steps, they are also being used to inform the process.  For instance, it is now well documented that if the property is a leasehold transaction then it will add a number of weeks to the process.  If this information is uncovered at the outset, then the estate agent can ask the correct questions of the homemover and try to progress the collation of the required data much earlier on in the process.  The challenge with this is when the transaction is then moved in to the conveyancing process.  How is the information transferred and can it, or will it, be trusted by the law firm?  This issue pertains to our earlier argument concerning data standards and interoperability between systems.

True e-conveyancing?

To summarise, some of the threads we have raised, the delivery of a true electronic conveyance is technically possible and has been anecdotally proven, certainly in the remortgage space where the transaction is far simpler.  There are two fundamental questions that still need to be answered before we can truly say we are operating in an e-conveyancing world.  The first is to determine which widgets we should use, and how commercially sustainable many of the emerging organisations are.  The second and bigger problem we face, is how to generate adoption of the technology and solve the problem of various data silos throughout the transaction.  For the latter to be solved we probably need a level of legislation which leads to mandation. 

Having been involved in providing technology led solutions to the conveyancing and estate agency industry for the last 17 years, I am encouraged by the energy and rate of change we are experiencing for adoption of new solutions and all of this without a mention of what AI is beginning to do for us, maybe that’s a focus for a future article.

With thanks to Paul Albone, COO, tmgroup

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