There are still too many paper-based processes in conveyancing and consumers will no longer tolerate it in the wake of Covid-19, the chairman of HM Land Registry (HMLR) has argued.
Michael Mire made the comments in HMLR’s annual report, which outlined how it was planning to create “a truly digital register” that can support structured data.
Addressing how the property market will change over the next year after Covid-19, he said: “I believe we will see a greater desire to make property transactions more digital. There are still too many paper-based processes in conveyancing compared with other markets.
“This has been tolerated by consumers up until now but the potential threat of a future outbreak will change those expectations. I think those not yet embracing digital technology in the sector will change the way they work and the current early adopters will want greater adoption, integration and a greater reduction in physical steps.”
The report noted how the pandemic has accelerated HMLR’s digital plans – notably in relation to identity and digital signatures – and said its upcoming activities included a “digital end-to-end process” for one of the most common register updates, a typical residential sale with a mortgage.
It said: “This will bring together all the strands of our digital programmes and will demonstrate the scale of our ambition and be a catalyst for transformation across all our services.”
Andrew Trigg, acting director of digital, data and technology, said frictionless digital conveyancing would need “structured data to automate fully the transfer of property ownership without the need for manual information retrieval or verification”.
He explained: “Therefore our digital transformation focuses on receiving verified digital data from our customers, which can enable their request to be processed in a way that eliminates manual administrative tasks and can then be stored as structured data to be retrieved easily and reused for a variety of purposes.
“This year we have been trialling our new digital registration service with some of our customers. Ready for launch in the summer, it will enable customers to submit forms using digital fields that will validate the information they enter before it is submitted to us.
“Not only does this reduce the need for paper, speeding up the process for our customers, but it also ensures data quality standards are applied up front.”
The digital registration service has been available in beta with 23 conveyancing firms in 2019/20.
HMLR also intends to “industralise” the transfer of local authority data to the local land charges register, after the first phase saw nine local authorities and almost 400,000 charges migrated to the new register from its launch in July 2018 to 31 March 2020.
“The new service proves that a national service is feasible, providing immediate and lasting benefits for customers,” it said.
On fraud, the report said HMLR “took a step back and looked at how land registration could work generally in a digital world, starting from first principles”.
It explained: “We believe there are significant advantages to the sector that can be achieved if we reconsider the degree of assurance given by conveyancers to HM Land Registry on each transaction… We have started to talk to stakeholders about how we can most effectively release this potential.”
Mr Trigg said nearly 84% of customer requests were already fully automated, although complex changes to the register “will always require registration experts”.
He went on: “We introduced robotic processing last year, using it initially to send reminder letters to customers. We are now using it to speed up casework. Our robots now examine more than 25,000 applications per week to check whether any other corresponding applications for the same land or property already exist in the system…
“We are testing how artificial intelligence can further reduce time-consuming manual tasks, with some promising early results. These steps all form part of a completely new application processing system to replace the outdated systems our registration experts currently use, enabling them to be more productive.”
At the heart of this was the plan to build “a truly digital register that can support structured data”, Mr Trigg explained.
The report said that in the next year HMLR would release datasets on registered leases – “In opening up this data we hope to assist estate agents in calculating property valuations more accurately, and support government departments in their understanding of the property market” – and on restrictive covenants, some five million and 17 million rows of data respectively.
It said: “We believe early awareness of covenants could help to speed up the property-buying process by revealing and addressing issues much earlier in conveyancing proceedings.”
The last year also saw the first caseworker apprentice to graduate as a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx) take up a role as an HM Land Registry lawyer. Assistant Land Registrar Alken Brookes joined HM Land Registry in 1997 as a registration officer.
He was one of four apprentices to become Fellows, while 12 completed the Level 3 CILEx training. HMLR has taken on a further 22 apprentices and five distance learners to qualify with CILEx.