Electronic documents validated with digital signatures will finally replace paper property deeds if a set of proposals by Land Registry is approved. The agency yesterday released for consultation its plans to amend the 2003 Land Registration Rules to allow fully electronic conveyancing. 

Proposals include: 

  • Accepting documents signed electronically through the government's Gov.UK.Verify system, under which third parties certify citizens' identity when interacting with the government online. Such signatures, the document states, do not need witnessing because the identity assurance takes place before the e-signature can be used;
  • Enabling wholly electronic mortgages, at first when there is no change in ownership of the property. Conveyancers will create electronic mortgage deeds online, giving the borrowers a link through which they can sign electronically;
  • Revoking rules requiring certain documents to be retained and amending the definition of 'working day' to take into account changes in working practices as well as the 'proper office' order stating where applications should be lodged; and
  • New cut-backs on access to personal visitors. The document notes that the cost of maintaining personnel for the 'occasional' visitor to its offices is very high. The free service of having identity forms validated by a Land Registry officer is used only by 'do-it-yourself' conveyancers. Even there, most people who need to have an identity form validated go to a solicitor or other conveyancer for the service. 'It might be therefore be argued that for Land Registry to continue to offer this service free is unfair to customers who cannot get to a Land Registry office, and unfair on local conveyancers who would otherwise get that business.' 

Overall, the proposed changes 'will allow the incremental introduction of secure electronic conveyancing and registration services,' the document states. 'It will allow the flexibility and speed that is vital in the digital world'.

The consultation document notes that ‘this is not a radical review of the rules' which it says is not appropriate while the Law Commission is reviewing the Land Registration Act 2002. 'The proposed rule amendments are the minimum we think are needed, pending the outcome of the commission’s work, in order to pursue our business strategy.'

Several attempts have been made to establish an e-conveyancing infrastructure over the past decade and a half. Land Registry abandoned a programme to create an end-to-end system in 2009. The baton was later picked up by the Law Society in its Veyo partnership with IT services business Mastek, but the project was cancelled in 2015. At the time, the Society said that the availability of free products from commercial suppliers of case management systems had made Veyo unnecessary.

The most prominent of these systems, the Free2Convey portal, now has 423 firms registered as users, the system's operators told the Gazette.

The system enables conveyancers and estate agents to share documents securely and view the status of other parties in the chain.

Founder Matt Lancaster said the system has experienced a surge in user in recent weeks. 'With the live user numbers we’re seeing, we believe that firms and individuals are beginning to realise the benefits – and new users are signing up daily, which is really exciting.'

The deadline for responses to the Land Registry consultation is 5 April.