How do you solve a problem like…conveyancing?

No doubt that old favourite The Sound of Music will be on our TV screens again over the Christmas period and the nuns will once more try to solve the problem called Maria, but in the real world it seems that once again everyone is returning to that old hobby-horse ‘How can we change/modernise conveyancing?’

George Osborne announced in the 2016 Budget that the Government was to publish a call for evidence on ‘how to make the process better value for money and more consumer-friendly’.

Andrew Lloyd in his guest blog in Today’s Conveyancer more recently – and very sensibly – questioned whether a ‘top-down’ approach was actually helpful or indeed necessary.

And, of course, there have been enough attempts at reform. In the recent past we have had Land Registry’s Chain Matrix, the Government’s Home Information Packs, the Law Society’s Veyo – all failed – and at great cost in money and reputation to those promoting them.

And now we have the Conveyancing Association (CA) and its ‘Modernising Conveyancing Conference’. This was held on December 1st ‘and brought together 200 industry stakeholders to analyse the CA’s White Paper, ‘Modernising the Home Moving Process’, and to secure advice, insight and clarity on key areas which could be improved upon’. Although such an obvious thing to say, it is so good that those involved in the day to day conveyancing process should be putting forward their own proposals. They know the daily highs and lows of dealing with a conveyancing matter; they must be the best placed to know what is wrong and to put forward proposals for change.

One thing that the CA and Andrew Lloyd agree upon is the need for better communication, particularly with clients. My own colleague, Denis Stevenson, of Rowlinsons Solicitors, told the conference that the Disney organisation trained people for two weeks on how to greet people in the car park. ‘That’s how serious they take the customer journey,’ he said. ‘Extensive training needs to be given. The complaints are not about the law or technical knowledge. It’s about the lack of those softer skills.’ Moving house is well known as being very stressful and Denis added that client communication was also ‘key to managing clients’ stress levels. .. It is important we explain at the outset how the process is going to work and keep in contact with them.’ All so very obvious, and something we all need reminding about.

Can I also mention another old favourite – managing client’s expectations? One of the problems is that clients are so used to the digital on-line age where things happen virtually instantaneously that they do not understand why conveyancing takes so long. Maybe it does take longer than it should – maybe – but we do need to explain to them right at the start precisely what is involved in the legal side of buying a house and how long each stage will take – rather than just saying that it will likely take 6 to 8 weeks before completion can take place. We need to make clear that buying a house is not quite the same as buying something from Amazon on the internet.

Another area highlighted by the CA is the provision of information up-front. The time taken in getting all the information needed by a buyer’s conveyancer is something that needs looking at again. The CA talks of ‘The provision of more pertinent and relevant upfront information, potentially in the form of a pre-contract pack, with a clear understanding on what documents would be included in such a pack’. But, apparently, this is not intended to be a return to HIPs and will not include searches.

But, with respect, we already have the Law Society’s Conveyancing Protocol, mandatory for solicitors who are members of the Law Society’s Conveyancing Quality Scheme and adopted voluntarily by many licensed conveyancers. This already requires seller’s conveyancers to prepare and deliver a pre-contract pack right at the start of the transaction. Why reinvent the wheel? Yes, there is a problem in that some conveyancers still don’t comply with the protocol – even when they say they are adopting it – but how do you police compliance other than bringing in legislation (as with HIPs)? One problem with conveyancers, if I can be critical, is that they always think that they know better than whatever the Law Society or whoever recommends. And yes I have been guilty of that myself, but only if we adopt common practices will a transaction proceed smoothly and as quickly as possible.

The other problem is the time it takes to obtain all the necessary information and much of this is outside our control; some local authorities are still taking 3 weeks to respond to local search and enquiries requests. And we won’t mention the time it can take to obtain service charge information when buying a leasehold flat. And, yes the time taken to process mortgage applications is also a delaying factor, but all of these are outside our control. If I was the all-powerful dictator, I would return to something similar to HIPs being required as soon as a property is marketed, including searches but excluding a survey. And yes, I know houses can take months to sell, so I would require all this to be updated every 6 months and then any other changes, adverse entries, within the 6 months to be covered by an insurance policy. Simples! ..but obviously expensive if a house takes years to sell. Do clients want quick and expensive conveyancing or slow and cheap? If asked, they would probably want quick and cheap!

We must wish the CA proposal well but as to whether it will be successful and bring about meaningful change, only time will tell. But to quote a song from the musical Cabaret, ‘Maybe this time….’

Today's Conveyancer