Opinion: can the Land Registry face up to the digital challenge?


The Land Registry recently said the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the immediate need for an easy-to-use, modestly priced, remote and digitally secure way for conveyancers to identify the buyers and sellers of a property. 

Acknowledging that the conveyancing process doesn’t currently feel very ‘21st Century’, Deputy Chief Executive Mike Harlow recognised that current identity verification methods are inconvenient to both conveyancers and their clients and rely on the skill and attention to detail of individuals, which can be variable. This compares to technological means which are highly consistent and accurate.

Working with the Law Society, Council for Licensed Conveyancers and Chartered Institute for Legal Executives, the Land Registry is finding ways to help the property market during the coronavirus crisis.

This is one of the first announcements from a government body to advocate the use of digital identity technology and long awaited by some. Yet, the journey to digitising conveyancing has thus far been slow. Could we now be on the cusp of a digital transformation?

We turned to five industry leaders to ask: is digital identity technology needed in conveyancing? Is change possible? And, what is needed to make this happen?

Beth Rudolph, Director of Delivery at the Conveyancing Association 

"Yes, this is definitely something which the industry needs. The improvement in the consumer journey by being able to utilise electronic identity verification systems is compelling enough but it is the ability to prevent fraud which is really the key. 

Electronic identity verification could mean that we can establish that the person signing is the true owner of the property, perhaps by checking the financial history of that identity against the property address and using biometrics to ensure that the person signing the document is the true holder of that identity. Crucially, if digital signatures are employed by the parties to a deed then the conveyancers know that the identity has been verified in this way and that the risk of the proceeds of sale being paid over to someone impersonating the seller reduce exponentially. 

This is not only good for the buyer and their lender but crucially the reduction in fraud claims against the indemnity insurance policies mean reduced premiums for all. When HMLR accept digital signatures, as a buyer’s conveyancer I would be requiring that the seller signs digitally so that I know that their identity has been verified using an electronic verification system."

Peter Ambrose, Managing Director at The Partnership

“Having onboarded over 6000 individual clients in the last 12 months, we know first-hand the sheer amount of effort that is required to ensure that we are compliant with all the regulations required.   The regulated world is crying out for this process to be simplified and more importantly, standardised. Clients really struggle gathering the correct documents together, especially the differing requirements that we have, compared with estate agents and mortgage brokers. They are also frustrated by the obvious duplication as well.

Whilst I welcome the initiative from Land Registry in highlighting this issue, based on my experience over the years, I am sceptical about the timescales involved and delivery of a workable and effective solution. Whilst standardisation of the process is absolutely key, and it will take a large organisation such as the Land Registry to make this happen, it is vital that standardised integration techniques are used. Our experience with building integrations with the Land Registry have, to date, been rather challenging – we trust that they are receiving guidance from experts such as Thirdfort in this area. Without a standardised open approach, such efforts are sadly doomed to fail.”

David Pett, Managing Director at MJP Conveyancing

"There is undoubtedly a need to remove human error from the identification process, and with more and more firms like my own who provide an online service to clients right across the country, looking to technology to provide a workable solution is a 'no brainer'. The need for this existed before Covid and I am sure the social distancing requirement has offered a smart platform to highlight how identity digital checks can, and will, make onboarding of a client less burdensome and much more reliable.  

The default position must always be face to face engagement backed up with good 'know your client’ online verification  intelligence.  If this is not possible, then technology that helps to identify the client through video and clever face recognition must figure as the best fallback.  There are already companies offering this type of verification technology and our experience with Thirdfort is that it works extremely well. Technology unlike humans does not tire.  It can check and verify documents at speed and at a consistently high standard.  It beats an employee studying documents with a magnifying glass! 

For the technology to work reliably and at speed there is a need for high quality cameras and advanced software much like that which can be found in passport lounges at airports. This type of identification process does have weaknesses: low illumination, image or video quality can lead to false positives. Slight changes in camera angles or personal appearance can also cause errors. For these reasons other biometric technology such as retinal scans might be needed in order to be reliable and trusted. 

Despite flaws, there is no doubt that if you are part of a progressive legal firm the time is now to get onboard with a forward thinking technology company like Thirdfort so as to make sure you nail your stake in the exciting advancements being made in this area of technology."

Natalie Moore, Director at Aconveyancing

"It’s encouraging to see that organisations like the Land Registry, Law Society, the Council for Licensed Conveyancers and the Chartered Institute for Legal Executives are backing the modernisation of conveyancing processes.

Digital identity technology is a long-overdue and welcomed step-forward in our industry, where we have historically lagged behind other professions.

At Aconveyancing, we’ve been using this technology for a while now and the pros far outweigh the cons for my team. The time, effort and paperwork saved by our staff and clients is invaluable, speeding up the buying and selling process safely and securely. Sure, we still have a proportion of clients who aren’t technically minded, and that’s fine, we can still work with our old systems.  But we’re seeing increasingly more people looking for a quicker pathway to completion - and this technology offers that."

David Bridge, Head of Conveyancing at Kiteleys

"Digital ID verification is a must. Unlike so much other tech, which can run from “nice to have” to “not needed” this seems to me to be essential. That was my view before lockdown and the current situation has only served to reinforce that. We are not, however, qualified to do this and cannot hope to keep pace with the specialist tech required. However, as the ones currently held to account, we are having to drive the change by making clear that we need something better – it is the only way to protect ourselves and our clients. We need to shift the perception of our clients so they know we are not doing this to somehow invade their privacy or make life harder for them – so the easier it is for them to comply the better.  We need regulators, lenders and government to give clear guidance as to what is acceptable so that we can rely on it safely and create a situation where one person’s verification can be shared and relied on within a transaction.  So this is a welcome direction but clear guidance that would allow us to choose a provider with trust would be even more welcome."

Thank you to our contributors. If you would like to find out more about digital identity verification, please get in touch at [email protected].

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