4th June 2020
There is no doubt that the current Covid-19 crisis and pandemic has affected the property market in the UK. It has been interesting as a dual qualified solicitor, to compare how Scotland and England/Wales have responded differently to the Coronavirus outbreak. The difficulties facing conveyancers throughout the UK are largely the same. Firstly, mortgage surveyors/valuers have been unable to enter properties in order to undertake valuations for mortgage purposes. This has been substantially impacted by social distancing measures. Secondly, those clients with medium to long haul removal requirements have struggled to source removal firms who are either willing or able to undertake such medium to long haul moves. Government guidance has been issued regarding house moves during the pandemic. The Government made it clear that a house move could only proceed as “normal” if the risks of the spread of the disease could be minimised. In order to achieve this, it was believed that only house moves which could be completed whilst social distancing could be concluded. This has meant that only parties moving into a property that was vacant, whilst moving all of their furniture and plenishings themselves, could potentially complete their transaction without falling foul of Government guidance. The English and Welsh property market has remained fairly buoyant during ‘lockdown’.
There have been significant changes to businesses and their structures in order to allow conveyancing transactions to complete despite having staff who are ‘home working’. It is evident that an almost military style ethos has been employed by firms who have sought to improvise, adapt and overcome current difficulties in order to provide levels of service to their clients. In England and Wales, HM Land Registry of England & Wales have been extremely sensible in their approach to registrations. HM Land Registry have been processing digital applications for registrations of Title for almost a decade now.
This digital basis has become the ‘norm’ to them. However, in order to prevent the Coronavirus from spreading, HM Land Registry have agreed that solicitors can accept digital copies of signed Transfer documents from their clients rather than ‘hard’ paper copies. These scanned digital documents can, in turn, be uploaded to the HM Land Registry portal in order to effect registration of Titles. Mortgage lenders in England and Wales can electronically discharge mortgage charges using the Land Registry’s online portal. In addition, pre-completion searches can be undertaken via the portal, with the result being delivered instantaneously. The Scottish equivalent, Registers of Scotland has sought to streamline and digitalise some of its processes during the pandemic. The failure of Registers to make this transition pre-Covid-19 has, however, come at a cost. There have been substantial delays in processing transactions during ‘lockdown’. Initially this was owing to the fact that required searches such as the Advance Notice only had a ‘shelf-life’ of 30 days, meaning that the search would ‘expire’ before registration of a title could take place. Registers of Scotland then extended the period of time by 10 days beyond the re-opening of the Register. This allowed far more flexibility and allowed transactions to be processed on a more ’normal’ basis. The only remaining difficulty is that Registers will not currently accept receipt of original Deeds and Dispositions for registration purposes. Registers have responded to this issue by allowing the digital registration of documents for limited purposes in date order according to the Advance Notice. An initial ‘trial period’ of this was extremely successful, and this has led to applications for registration being accepted digitally, albeit with a maximum number of applications being accepted for registration each day. The 2012 Land Registration (Scotland) Act sought to align Scottish processes with the English/Welsh system. Whilst positive progress was made pre-lockdown, the failure of Registers to implement larger-scale changes and to digitalise more of its functions sooner, has caused delays in Scottish conveyancing transactions. In direct comparison to HM Land Registry of England and Wales, Registers have remained ‘behind the times’.
A fully operational digital service is evidently what is required in what is a digital age. Whilst Registers of Scotland have attempted to streamline some of their processes, it is sincerely hoped that with Covid-19 has come a realisation that the digital age has well and truly arrived.
To find out more, go to munronoble.com or call Laura McCarthy on 01463 221727