Justice Minister Chris Grayling wants to reform the way legal services are provided. In the advertisement for a new Chair of the Legal Services Board he says “We need a more diverse and innovative legal services market that attracts new providers, offers new opportunities for the current and future legal profession and that meets the needs of current and future consumers. ”
It is probably fair to say that the legal profession has not been as quick to embrace change as some would like. In the past lawyers always put the needs of clients above their own way of doing things.
Faster Conveyancing Emphasised
But in recent years there has been a substantial change in the way conveyancing work is done. There is much more emphasis on speed, which has been greatly helped by the use of modern communication technology.
The Law Society, which represents the solicitors’ branch of the legal profession, has in recent years led the way with a number of initiatives. These have been developed after consultation with consumers and practising solicitors as well as other stakeholders such as the Council of Mortgage Lenders.
The Society has for many years encouraged the use of a protocol to be followed by conveyancers, with the use of standard contract clauses and enquiry forms.
More recently it has introduced other initiatives which are designed to benefit clients and speed up the conveyancing process such as:
- The Conveyancing Quality Scheme – a scheme which ensures that member firms undertake conveyancing to the highest standards. This gives buyers and sellers a recognisable quality benchmark to look for when choosing a solicitor for their house purchase or sale.
- An updated form of property enquiries to more accurately reflect the information needed by buyers and include some new questions which are common additional enquiries during the conveyancing process.
- A new standard Leasehold Property Enquiries Form. With the ever-increasing market for leasehold flats this new form will make it quicker and easier to obtain information about a property that is held by landlords, management companies and managing agents - for example, information about ground rent and service charges.
Online Conveyancing Portal on the way
Next year an online conveyancing portal is due to be launched. This will improve communication between solicitors, clients and others such as estate agents and the land registry. This should help cut out many of the delays which now arise and speed up conveyancing. Buyers and sellers will be able to see how their transactions are progressing, and input information as and when required.
So Mr Grayling cannot say that solicitors are dragging their feet when it comes to improving the provision of conveyancing services for the benefit of their clients.
But solicitors can only work with the law as it is, and it is up to the government to make changes to the law. There are several areas of land law which would benefit from reform but the government seems reluctant to do anything to implement changes.
Changes to the law would make a big difference
Here are just a few changes which could make life better for homeowners and make conveyancing easier:
- A root and branch reform of the present law relating to the ownership and management of flats and similar property. At present virtually all such properties are held on leasehold title, which is often to hark back to medieval times. Most other countries which have similar land law to our own, such as the USA and Australia, have developed forms of strata title.
- Some years ago such a system called commonhold was introduced in England and Wales, but it has seen little use. It is difficult and expensive to convert existing leasehold titles and many mortgage lenders do not accept commonhold titles. Furthermore property developers and management companies have a vested interest in keeping the present system as they can make money out of flat-owners in all sorts of ways.
- Getting rid of the relics of the feudal dues which still lurk in English property law – such things as chancel repair liability and rights of the lord of the manor to mines and minerals. Although these do not actually affect many properties solicitors still have to check whether a property is subject to any liability which could affect a buyer.
- Reforming the present unfair way in which stamp duty is charged. It would be too much to hope that this tax on property transfers will be completely abolished. However the current system has been widely criticised – duty is applied in bands, and is charged on the whole of the price at the rate applicable to the band in which the price falls.
Scotland is currently developing a fairer system in which duty will be charged on the portion of the total price falling within each tax band – similar to the way income tax is charged. But the government seems firmly opposed to such a change for England and Wales.
Of course some of these reforms would cost money or upset those with vested interests. But it does appear the government is big on talking reform when it applies to other people but not so good at implementing reforms itself.