With the long-awaited arrival of the first phase of Registers Direct, now set for early in the new year, the Registers of Scotland will truly herald the onset of the information age of conveyancing transactions.
If the inevitable culmination of this, electronic conveyancing, frightens some firms, they would probably receive a sympathetic hearing from the Keeper of the Registers, Alan Ramage. Having accumulated 38 years “man and boy” within the organisation, his time as Keeper had coincided with the monumental process of digitising the registers.
“Without doubt the greatest change has been the digitising of our registers, I would suggest that this has been a greater step change than the one which was the replacement of engrossing clerks with typists and the introduction of xerography earlier this century.
“The digitising of our registers was completed a couple of years ago, but even that short distance in time has a tendency to minimise the scale of what was involved”.
The job of imaging nine million pages of search sheets to digitise the Sasine Register was “ a tremendous task”, and says Alan Ramage, “in the Land Register while the scale was different the complexities were greater”.“The textual elements were held on a mainframe computer. While this enabled basic electronic searching we had to move to a more modern format and ‘translate’ these records from our mainframe computer to a modern client-server environment to improve ease of access and to provide greater functionality”.
Matching half a million paper title plans with the most up-to-date version of the Ordnance Survey map turned out to be an equally ambitious undertaking. “Not all Title Plans consist of a simple red edge rectangle, many show rights and common servitudes and the plans for more complex titles can come in a myriad of colours, tintings and hatchings reflecting various rights and burdens”.The Keeper is as disappointed and frustrated as customers with the delay in introducing the Registers Direct service. However he is convinced that, despite the difficulties which are in the process of being resolved, customers old and new will see great benefits in being able to access directly information held on the registers.
The digitising process has in the meantime brought a sharper focus to bear on accuracy. “Obviously a digitised record is more readily accessible and this can reveal hitherto unsuspected errors or omissions. In linking the old registers with the new we bring to light old errors and omissions and perhaps uncover new ones. We have responded by introduced a quality programme and also set up a Data Integrity Unit to make error reporting and error correction more effective. I am aware that the accuracy of records is a key issue and we are taking the question of quality seriously”.
Having worked his way from an administrative officer up through the ranks of the Executive Agency, via various roles including as a legal examiner, manager, then finance and personnel director, how does he view the rather archaic sounding role of “Keeper”?
“We can be seen as a repository for title deeds, but that gives a passive impression. We see ourselves as part of the fabric of the legal process of conveyancing inter-acting with the legal profession and others on a daily basis”.
Nevertheless Alan Ramage is conscious that the public is either often unaware of the Registers’ existence or confuses them with the Register of Births, Marriages and Deaths. As part of the process of increasing his profile, the Agency has devised a programme of events designed to bring it closer to its customers and the public.
“Registers of Scotland has for a long time now had a good relationship with members of the legal profession and we are building on that tradition. We have developed a comprehensive market research strategy which will enable us to identify consumers’ views on the range and quality of our services and their views on the Agency overall on an ongoing basis.
“From our surveys it is clear that a key concern of practitioners is the time taken to process subjects registered in the Land Register for the first time. This is a labour intensive process and we are looking at ways of improving this.
“One pleasing output from the outcome of the focus groups is that members of the legal profession still appreciate the ‘face to face’ communications which they get by speaking directly to staff at the Agency.
“This is possibly a reaction to so many organisations answering enquiries by a series of disembodied voices so we will be continuing to engage our customers directly either on a day-to-day basis as part of our normal operations or by engaging them in our focus and user groups.“We have recently opened a new web site (www.ros.gov.uk) where solicitors will be able to get much more information about the Agency and be able to express their views about any aspects of the Agency’s operations. We will shortly be giving solicitors a free copy of a CD-ROM on which are contained all application firms which will enable them to move away from paper forms. This, with the inclusion of mandatory fields, will also improve accuracy”.
Alan Ramage and his colleagues have detected few negative vibes from the legal profession about Automated Registration of Title to Land. “From our surveys they welcome it. The feedback we have is that there are some concerns with automation, in that the Registers will be doing the solicitor’s job. In fact it will cut costs and remove bureaucracy. At the moment between 20 and 30% of applications in the Land Register can be sent back, resulting in delay in the registration of title, but with automation the reduction in paper handling will result in a better service”.
The Agency has also been engaging solicitors in the development of e-conveyancing and has come up with a proof of model concept in conjunction with Thorntons of Dundee. The message from the Agency is that while this is a little way off, it is interesting to note that in England and Wales, HM Land Registry already has a pilot study up and running whereby some building societies can discharge mortgages electronically.
Concerns remain about the security aspect of electronic transactions and this will be a key consideration in developing the process. Then there is the cost element that will have to be borne by some firms whose IT infrastructure may not be advanced enough at present to allow access to Registers Direct and other electronic services. “Access to Registers Direct will be by way of standard Internet web-browser technology. Similarly Automated Registration of Title to Land will be built to match the IT environment which will be in place in most modern legal practices”.
Such sentiments betray the fact that Alan Ramage is another devotee of Richard Susskind’s vision of the future delivery of legal services. “I think it is important that I take a holistic view of how the Agency is operating and how it has to operate in the future. It is only by taking this view that we can plan for the future. At the Society’s 50th Anniversary Conference I attended a session by Richard Susskind and was impressed by his model for looking at what he called the “knowledge business” in which he said the legal profession and, by extension, agencies like ours which interface with the legal profession, are engaged.
“I see Registers of Scotland as being involved in the knowledge business and I think Susskind’s model sits very well with how we are trying to operate in the next century.
“IT gives us the power to revolutionise the way in which we delivery services and we see Registers Direct as being our main service delivery vehicle in respect of information held in the Registers”.
Is there a danger that digital conveyancing will make conveyancing transactions so straightforward as to either drive down fees or indeed negate the need of the level of expertise offered by a solicitor?
“My own view is that digital conveyancing will reduce registration fees but registration is the end of a process which involves most people in the biggest purchase of their lives. I cannot see that this can be done without professional input”.
The Keeper is excited about the future of an organisation which employs 1,200 people and has a turnover of £43 million.
“We must ensure we meet the profession’s requirements in this era of electronic business. I am convinced that solicitors will soon be able to give effect to transactions electronically without the intervention of Agency staff in cases where it is a straightforward transfer of land and the subjects are already registered in the Land Register.
“We are committed to playing our part in the Government’s aim of achieving ‘joined-up government’ by working with others in post-devolution Scotland to provide better, more coordinated electronic access to geo-spatial information.”