Are you feeling a sense of Déjà vu yet?
As England returns to a nationwide lockdown, many of us are returning to our hastily prepared desks in the spare room and heading back in time to March 2020. But, rather than a temporary inconvenience, is our current situation a foretaste of what’s to come? Could remote working be the future of conveyancing?
The Case for Remote Working
Let’s start by asking another question. How much of the conveyancing process really needs to be conducted in an office?
Since midway through the last decade, the industry has been slowly – and at times painfully – been moving towards a digital future. On the lawyers’ side, the first electronic mortgage was completed back in 2018. And, while digital mortgages aren’t due to become compulsory anytime soon, it’s not hard to imagine them being used more widely in the future.
What’s more, despite concerns about compliance, electronic signatures are well on the way to being commonly used. Transfers of land and charges must be made by deed. In other words, they need to be signed, witnessed and attested. So, naturally, many conveyancers worry about how they can be compliant with the legal requirements for execution remotely.
However, this hurdle can be cleared using the government’s ‘Verify’ service – an online application that checks identity. It’s the service you used if you’ve ever applied for a driving licence or passport online. It works by an individual signing up to an account with a government identity provider before having their identity verified against credit agency or mobile phone provider data, a process that takes 5-10 minutes.
Services like Verify remove the need for conveyancers to meet clients and witnesses in person, without the compliance risk this would usually entail.
But it’s not just conveyancers who are benefitting from new technology. The Land Registry began its process of digitising and centralising the LLC1 back in 2018. And, although the process has been fraught with difficulty, eventually, search agents will be able to access instantaneously LLC data online – removing at least some of the need to visit local authorities in person.
What Needs to Happen to Get Us There?
So, if much of the infrastructure for remote conveyancing is already there, why is the industry much the same in 2020 as it was in 2010? Well, unfortunately, there are still a few vital missing pieces.
Digitise the CON29
This one’s pretty glaring. From a search agent’s perspective getting LLC1 data digitally from the Land Registry while still having to source CON29 data from a local authority, actually makes the process more difficult. Admittedly, some councils offer the CON29 digitally, but many more don’t. For search agents to work from home permanently, all data needs to be accessible digitally and preferably from one central source.
For all its strengths, the legal sector has never been one for rapid innovation or embracing change quickly. So while digitised processes like electronic mortgages and signatures are now a reality, until there is widespread trust in them they’ll never be fully adopted. More needs to be done to demonstrate to the industry as a whole that tools like Verify are not only safe and reliable but also convenient.
Alongside this, there’s an urgent need for government legislation to clarify the legality of many of these tools. Doing so would be a major step towards the whole industry embracing remote working.
Although progress has been made, the tools required for real digital conveyancing are still in their infancy. If one of the greatest concerns about electronic conveyancing is security, then it stands to reason that’s it’s this area which will need to see the most rapid developments. We’ll need tools like biometric or retinal scanning and a whole host of anti-fraud measures if electronic conveyancing is to take off.
Get Buyers Onside
In much the same way as the legal industry, buyers will need to fully trust the process before they use it. After all, no one wants to risk the biggest investment of their life on processes and technology that’s still in its beta phase.
It’s a bit of a chicken and egg scenario. Conveyancers can’t iron out the wrinkles in digital processes without real transactions to test them on, but buyers won’t use the technology until they’re confident it’s safe. As with conveyancers, the key to building confidence among buyers is a strong, clear signal from the government, most likely in the form of legislation or a campaign.
Meeting these requirements could take a couple of years or a decade. Fully digital conveyancing is probably inevitable, but it’s a question of appetite for change – does the industry have it? And will the government stand behind new technology to build trust? If not, could COVID-19 and the sudden need to do things differently provide the catalyst?
We’re about to find out.