Failure to computerise the conveyancing process could damage the UK economy, the chief executive of the Law Society has told a United Nations conference.

Speaking at a UN Economic Commission for Europe event on the role of land registration in economic recovery, Desmond Hudson (pictured) criticised the lack of progress since the Land Registry of England and Wales announced it had shelved its ‘e-conveyancing’ project last year.

Hudson also warned of the lack of security in current title transfer arrangements. He said the UK risked being overtaken in competitiveness by countries with national electronic identity systems, such as some EU accession countries: ‘We are beginning to fall behind in that our civil and legal systems are not digitised enough.’

The conference heard Europe’s first cross-border e-conveyancing transaction had already been carried out, between the Netherlands and Spain.

The Registry last year revealed that it had abandoned a programme to develop end-to-end e-conveyancing. Cancellation involved writing off £6.4m spent on developing electronic charges, signatures and transfers, and a further £4.5m spent on software to support its planned e-services.

Malcolm Dawson, chief land registrar, told the conference that the Registry’s work on e-conveyancing showed ‘technically, it worked, but it was a bit ahead of its time’. He defended the Registry’s record on electronic innovation, saying that 95% of initial property searches and nearly all mortgage discharges are conducted electronically.

Calling on the Registry to revive its efforts, Paul Broadhead, head of mortgage policy at the Building Societies Association, said that there was a danger of e-conveyancing fragmenting if a system was set up by lenders. He said the Registry would be the most credible operator as ‘the Land Registry’s interests are allied with consumer interests’.

Dawson agreed that the Registry has ‘a role to play in moving e-conveyancing forward’, but that its role should not be to drive it. Instead, the Registry would work with alliances, acting as an ‘honest broker’, he said.