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News focus: National Conveyancing Week – digital property passport under scrutiny

By Monidipa Fouzder >>

(18 March 2024)

National Conveyancing Week saw the Digital Property Market Steering Group unveil the first major piece of work in its action plan to speed up the home moving process.

The draft Digital Property Information Protocol aims ‘to exploit the benefits of digital services’. According to the 10-page document, the protocol would ensure that ‘digital, trustable and interoperable’ property data would be collected and shared by all relevant parties and systems involved in a transaction.

Information and prescribed documents to be collated include energy performance certificates, evidence of title and environmental information. Where available, the protocol states, property transaction data should be accessed digitally from its primary source.

Recommendations for the seller’s conveyancer include identity verification and anti-money laundering checks upon instruction. Estate agents marketing the property should receive a summary of any material information that might affect the buyer’s decision.

Recommendations for the buyer’s conveyancer include requesting the material information on which the offer was based and providing a draft financial statement as soon as possible on the likely cost of completion.

The protocol is intended to sit alongside the Law Society Conveyancing Protocol. And even when one party or stakeholder does not agree to adopt it, that does not prevent its use by the other stakeholders or party.

Announcing the draft protocol this week, HM Land Registry’s deputy chief executive Mike Harlow highlighted the advances in availability of information since the 1862 Land Registry Act marked the government’s first attempt to record property ownership information. ‘What we have now is a lot more information and compliance requirements,’ he said.

The Land Registration Act 2002 – designed to enable e-conveyancing – ‘tried to establish a more seamless process for everyone sharing information across whole transactions’, Harlow said. But that ambition has yet to be achieved, despite a number of false starts.

Harlow said: ‘If everyone knows as much as needs to be known about the property – the parties, the terms of the deal, its progress – at all times, if that picture is shared, if everyone has that same information and that information is as good as it can be, then think how much faster things would happen… No one has to chase anyone because everyone can see what stage the process is at.’

Kate Faulkner, chair of the Home Buying and Selling Group, said the work on information-sharing is being carried out to the same standards adopted by the financial services industry in the move into open banking. ‘It has to be because there are lenders involved. The level we are trying to get it right is about as high as it can be,’ she said.

But noting that no dataset will ever be 100% correct, Faulkner said: ‘We have to look at how we protect the industry. That might be insurance or something else’.

Another issue is market fluctuation. Faulkner believes it unfair ‘to ask this industry, through no control of its own, to move 800,000 people one year, then 1.6 million the next, when it takes five years or more to train and have the knowledge that conveyancers, surveyors and agents need… I do not know anyone that can go through [pandemic peak year] 2021 again’.

However, the steering group still has plenty to do to persuade conveyancers that its digital market will move conveyancing in the right direction.

‘Many conveyancers have left due to progressive overload and, quite frankly, many more are on their way out – is that why you are going for AI/digitisation?’ one attendee at National Conveyancing Week asked.

Another said: ‘It is argued that the human element struggles with communication in the conveyancing process. That is now made worse with the vast variety of stakeholders who maintain they have the software solutions to communicate with each other as well.’

Gazette reader comments also reflected scepticism. ‘The tech is to act as a “tool” in the conveyancer’s armoury, not as a replacement,’ one argued. Others cited the unhappy experience of the mandatory home information pack, introduced by the Housing Act 2004 and abolished by the coalition government in 2010.

The steering group wants to know if its protocol will help conveyancing teams learn what is available to them, what they can expect from other stakeholders, and what is needed to ensure everyone involved in the home buying and selling process collaborates effectively.

The survey closes on 1 April.

(Courtesy: The Law Society Gazette)