‘The more things change, the more they remain the same’ is a sentiment especially relevant to the conveyancing industry; and in my view, that’s no bad thing.
The phrase is commonly attributed to French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, who was apparently making the point that no matter how tumultuous times get, nothing really changes. The same is true of conveyancing. Since I became involved in the industry as a legal indemnity underwriter in the 70s, I’ve witnessed some turbulent times in our market, but over the years, conveyancing has ultimately remained more or less the same. Mind you, I have seen numerous attempts to re-engineer the process.
Conveyancing is not without its detractors, who criticize the process for being slow, cumbersome and annoyingly uncertain. As a result, there are often attempts to shake the market up. But in spite of all the moaning about this lengthy, complicated process, it has worked for a very long time; and at the heart of it is the conveyancer. Nearly all the ideas to ‘improve’ the system over the years have suggested reducing the role of the solicitor or changing the culture of house-buying in the UK. Most new concepts focus on speeding up the process but tend to ignore the many essential and practical factors involved in property purchases such as multiple participants, lending, surveying and insuring. It is also a fact that most of these concepts involve extra costs that, unsurprisingly, clients do not welcome.
One of the best examples of this was the ill-fated Home Information Packs (HIPS) introduced by the Government in 2007. Everyone involved in the property industry knew that they’d fail, and that they would only add cost to the conveyancing process.
US-style title insurance has also been heralded many times since the 70s as having the potential to change our system; the intention being to turn title investigation into some sort of factory process that excludes solicitors. Understandably, the market has not responded. Of course, we sell title insurance ourselves, but the difference with our cover is that it’s very much a UK friendly policy, designed to work in conjunction with conveyancers’ existing practices by covering what couldn’t be uncovered in the conveyancing process.
All this is not to say that the physical process of conveyancing hasn’t improved over the years. Technology now allows the conveyancer to get title documents almost instantly, searches can be ordered online, and legal indemnity cover can now be obtained in minutes. But, although you can speed up the associated processes, you simply cannot speed up due diligence - and I firmly believe that house purchasers would baulk at any system that reduces the role of a solicitor.
Purchasing a property in the UK is still a big deal and more central to our way of life than in many other countries. So the process has to be right, and the one we have works. Despite advanced technology and a willingness from everyone involved to streamline the process, it still takes, on average, 12 weeks to complete a purchase.
It’s frustrating, but inevitably a process that involves sellers, purchasers, lenders, conveyancers, surveyors, and sometimes insurers too, is always likely to be a little cumbersome. No doubt attempts will be made to change it in the future, but fundamentally, I believe it will always remain the same; and as far as I’m concerned, that’s just fine.