Digital Ambition: HM Land Registry’s Digital Transformation Programme and the Path to Electronic Conveyancing and Registration

March 13, 2018

HM Land Registry aspires to
become ‘the world’s leading land registry
for speed, simplicity and an open approach to data.’[1]
 This aspiration moved closer to
fruition after the Land Registry’s announcement of new digital services from
April 2018, paving the way for electronic conveyancing transactions and
registration (eg digital mortgages and land transfers).

I welcome the Land Registry’s innovation but argue that the delivery of these new digital
services – and fulfilment of HMLR’s ambitious digital transformation programme[2]
  could be enhanced by partnering with DocuSign, Adobe Sign, eSignLive and other prominent electronic signature

The current legal framework for
electronic conveyancing

Section 52 of the Law of Property
Act 1925 requires that the transfer of land or the creation of a legal mortgage
is made by deed.[3]

Section 91 of the Land
Registration Act 2002 establishes that an electronic document will be regarded
as a deed if (a) it complies with the conditions of that section[4];
and (b) the disposition is of a kind that is specified in ‘rules’. Currently,
the only rules that have been issued under section 91 are the Land Registration
(Electronic Conveyancing) Rules 2008. The 2008 Rules led to the registration of
a small number of digital mortgages during a Land Registry pilot scheme in
2009. However, the 2008 financial crisis had dampened lenders’ enthusiasm for
digital mortgages, and the electronic mortgage service was put in abeyance.

The Land Registry therefore
requires a wet-ink signature on a paper version of any document or deed
submitted for registration purposes.   

The introduction of new digital

The Land Registry has embarked on
a bold programme of digital transformation. Like many public sector bodies, it
has recognised the urgent need to adapt and update its practices for the
digital era.

In February 2017, the Land
Registry consulted[5] on
changes to the Land Registration Rules 2003 (the LRR 2003). The aim was to
introduce new digital services that would permit the use of electronic
documents with a digital signature for land transfers and land registration.
The Land Registry also proposed to revoke the 2008 Rules (for digital
mortgages), which would be superfluous if the changes to the LRR 2003 were

The consultation closed in April
2017 and the Government published its response at the end of January.[6]
The Government noted that respondents were overwhelmingly in favour of the Land
Registry’s proposals and enacted The Land Registration (Amendment) Rules 2018
on 22 January. They amend the LRR 2003 and will take effect from 6 April 2018.

New rr 54A-D of the amended LRR
2003 lay the foundation for the new digital services. They provide that a “disposition of a registered estate or
may be carried out electronically with a certified digital
signature[7].  The new digital services will not be
immediately available for every disposition from 6 April; they will be
rolled-out incrementally. If the Chief Land Registrar is satisfied that
adequate arrangements are in place for a particular class of disposition, he
will publish a notice that the digital service is ready to use for that

The Land Registry has confirmed
that its digital mortgage service will be first off the blocks.[8]
The service will initially be restricted to re-mortgages and will be available only
to a discrete number of conveyancers who are registered Business Gateway users
and have signed an HMLR Network Access Agreement.

How will conveyancers access the
new digital services?

The Land Registry has outlined
three methods of access to the digital services in its consultation document:

Programming Interfaces (APIs)
– Large conveyancers already use APIs to
integrate directly with the Land Registry’s network. Some upgrades will be
required so that conveyancers can use the new digital services to automatically
feed data into their electronic conveyancing documents (e.g a digital
mortgage). As discussed more fully below, signatories will then access the
document online and apply a secure digital signature that is certified by the
Land Registry.

Case Management
Systems (CMS
) – There are around 15 CMS software vendors in the UK market.
Many of these vendors have developed APIs that integrate directly with the Land
Registry’s network and they are likely to adapt their software and APIs so
conveyancers can use their CMS to access the new digital services.

Registry portal
– There are approximately 3500 professional conveyancers
who are registered Business Gateway users and have signed a Network Access
Agreement. This means they can use an internet connection and a standard
browser to access Business Gateway e-services via the Land Registry’s portal.
The Land Registry has indicated that it will develop its portal and enable
conveyancers to access the new digital services in the near future; for the
time being, however, the Land Registry is prioritising new APIs for those
larger conveyancers whose IT systems are already integrated with the Land
Registry network.

How will the Land Registry verify
the identity of a signatory to the electronic transaction?

Before an individual can apply a
digital signature to an electronic document, he or she must confirm their
identity through the GOV.UK.VERIFY service.[9]
The VERIFY service is used as a gateway for online access to many government
services (e.g. HMRC and DVLA). Certified companies – such as Barclays and Royal
Mail – verify the individual’s identity by checking their personal details
against records held by credit agencies, mobile phone providers and HM Passport
Office. The VERIFY service is integrated with the Land Registry’s network to
provide a high level of identity assurance and to counter the risk of
fraudulent transactions.[10]

The identity checks by the VERIFY
service are in addition to standard money laundering identity checks carried
out by conveyancers and lenders.

How will the Land Registry generate and certify the digital signature?

The Land Registry has a
purpose-built solution that uses public key cryptography to generate digital
signatures. In legal terms, the Land Registry will be acting as a ‘Trust Service Provider’ and must comply
with obligations laid down by the EU
Regulation on electronic identification and trust services for electronic
transactions (EU 910/2014)
. This EU Regulation is more commonly known as eIDAS and came into force (with little
fanfare) in July 2016. eIDAS establishes an EU-wide framework for electronic
signatures and online authentication and is a key driver of the European
Commission’s flagship Digital Single Market strategy.

Once an individual’s identity has
been successfully verified by the VERIFY service, the Land Registry will send
security credentials to the individual’s mobile phone.[11]
The individual will use these credentials to access, for example, the digital
mortgage service and sign the mortgage deed electronically.  The Land Registry uses public key
cryptography to issue a digital certificate that confirms the authenticity[12]
and integrity[13]
of the deed. Once the individual has signed, the conveyancer can complete the
transaction and any registration formalities.

A digital signature is a more
technologically sophisticated form of electronic signature. It is created using
public key cryptography and the signature is backed by a digital certificate
from a Trust Service Provider as proof of the signatory’s identity.  The Land Registry has stated that its public
key infrastructure (PKI) will generate a digital signature that meets the
requirements for an ‘advanced electronic
(AES) set out in Article 26 of eIDAS. That is, an electronic
signature that is also:

uniquely linked to the signatory;

capable of identifying the signatory;

created using electronic signature creation data
that the signatory can, with a high level of confidence, use under his or her
sole control; and

linked to the signed electronic document in such
a way that any subsequent change to that document is detectable.

In English law, an AES is
admissible in evidence in relation to any question as to the authenticity or
integrity of the electronic document (Electronic Communications Act 2000, s7). Although
the ECA 2000 deals with the admissibility of electronic signatures, it does not
deal with their validity. This depends on the nature of the transaction. In our
case, an electronic disposition of a registered estate or charge, or any other
disposition that triggers a requirement of registration at the Land Registry,
must conform with s 91 of the LRA 2002 and rr 54A-D of the LRR 2003. 

Section 91 (3)(c) of the LRA 2002
effectively abolishes witnessing of electronic deeds and substitutes a
requirement that the AES is certified. The Land Registry – in its capacity as a
Trust Service Provider –  will generate
the AES for the signatory to authenticate the electronic disposition. The Land
Registry will follow PKI protocols to issue a digital certificate as evidence
that the signatory is who he or she claims to be, and which will cryptographically
bind the signatory to the signed document or deed.

How can electronic signature platforms support the provision of the new
digital services and bolster the Land Registry’s digital transformation

The European Commission and EU Member
States are actively championing and eager to maximise the full potential of the
digital economy. Digital technology offers many benefits to the public and
private sector: efficiency gains, cost savings and convenience.  I am therefore supportive of the Land
Registry’s proposals to overhaul our conveyancing laws and upgrade them for the
digital era.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that
the provision of the new digital services and the Land Registry’s pathway to
digital transformation could be enhanced by collaborating with the leading
commercial electronic signature platforms:

1. The
Land Registry’s role as a Trust Service Provider –
The Land Registry’s
primary duty is to oversee property ownership and ensure the integrity of the
Land Register. As I explained above, in assuming responsibility for generating
and certifying digital signatures, the Land Registry is regulated as a Trust
Service Provider
under eIDAS.[14]
This means, for example, that the Land Registry will be liable for damage
caused intentionally or negligently
any persons arising from its failure to comply with its obligations under eIDAS
and could potentially be penalised by ICO (as the competent supervisory body)
for a breach of those obligations.
Both the Land Registry and the certified companies operating the VERFY service
will also have to implement measures to manage the risks posed to the security
of the ‘
trust services[17]
they are providing and notify ICO of any security breach within 24 hours.
To a large degree, these security obligations mirror the Land Registry’s
obligations under the forthcoming GDPR
regime; but the Land Registry is departing from its core business of
maintaining a register of land ownership, and assuming risks and
responsibilities as a Trust Service Provider that are more suited to specialist
commercial electronic signature platforms. 
Although the
Land Registry will be the only Trust Service Provider permitted to generate and
certify AESs when the new laws come into force in April, the government has
left the door open for platforms to participate in the future. This is
heartening. In its response to the consultation (para 4.23), the Government
observed that the Land Registry ‘
continue to look at and monitor e-signature solutions that exist or emerge in
the market, but we are currently satisfied that our own will be appropriate for
the rigours of the land registration system.’

2.      Security
and availability of digital services–
The security of the Land
Registry’s network and the VERIFY service is fundamental to winning users’
trust; if conveyancers (and their customers) do not have trust in the Land
Registry’s new digital services, they will persist with wet ink signatures and hold
back the Land Registry’s digital transformation programme. Twenty respondents
to the Land Registry’s consultation questioned whether the VERIFY service is ‘
sufficiently robust and adequate to provide
identity assurance’  
for signatories.
The government was bullish about the security of the VERIFY service and pointed
out that the Land Registry’s network (and its PKI system provided by IBM) is
certified against the ISO 27001 standard for information security management.

The leading
platforms are able to match the stringent risk management and security
standards that the Land Registry demands, and which is necessary to maintain
confidence in the integrity of the register. Security is paramount for the
platforms and their reputation hinges on their ability to keep their customers’
data secure and confidential. For example,
Adobe Sign are certified
compliant with a raft of technical standards including ISO 27001, SOC 2 Type 2
and PCI DSS (used in the payment card industry). The best platforms use the
highest level of encryption to protect data in transit and at rest. They also
offer carrier grade availability (99.99% uptime) and redundancy across multiple
EU data centres.

Technology refreshAlthough
providers may give customers the option to deploy the electronic signature
platform on premises, it is more commonly offered as a public cloud service.
Providers use the software as a service (or ‘SaaS’) delivery model which
involves hosting the software applications and storage of customer data on
shared IT infrastructure. Providers are constantly innovating and refreshing
the software and hardware that underpins their platform to keep pace with
technological development. The Land Registry is using closed PKI technology and
may not upgrade that technology with the same frequency as the platform

4.      Methods
of authenticating signatories

At the time of
writing, the VERIFY service may only be used to authenticate an individual with
a UK address. The individual does not have to be a UK citizen. Thus, the VERIFY
service has limitations and cannot authenticate corporate bodies, charities or
other legal persons.

signature platforms could potentially plug this gap.  Platforms use multi-factor authentication[21]
for customers who sign documents with an AES and have the technical capability
to verify the identity of corporate bodies or non-UK resident individuals. 


The changes to
the LRR 2003 will come into effect in April and herald a significant shift
towards digitisation of the Land Registry’s conveyancing and registration

I welcome the
new digital services and commend the Land Registry for its initiative and
vision. I now hope that the Land Registry will take the next step and collaborate
with electronic signature platform providers to improve and enlarge the scope
of their digital services.[22]
This will benefit conveyancers (and their customers); it could also accelerate
the Land Registry’s digital transformation programme. 

Richard Oliphant
is the former EMEA General Counsel of Docusign, Inc. and now an independent
consultant who specialises in e-signatures, Cloud, data privacy and data
security laws.

The author wishes to express his thanks to
Michael Callaghan of Shoosmiths LLP for his assistance with this article.






Subject to some limited exceptions in s 52(2) of the Law of Property Act 1925,
none of which apply to the registration of land at the Land Registry.

Notably a condition that the document is authenticated by an electronic
signature, and this signature is “certified” (s 92(3)(b) and (c))

Note that the text in LRR 2003 refers to an ‘electronic signature’. But, in
fact, the Land Registry will generate and certify an ‘advanced electronic
signature’ which is more commonly referred to as a ‘digital signature’.


Some respondents to the consultation expressed concern that the VERIFY service
will not provide the rigorous identity assurance that is necessary to prevent
fraud and identity theft. The government downplayed this concern, stressing
that the certified companies are “bound
by detailed contractual requirements to provide highly robust procedures and
and “audited and complete a rigorous
onboarding process before joining VERIFY.” [para 4.16, Government Response to
the Proposals to amend the Land Registration Rules 2003.]

The Land Registry has indicated that email is likely to be another option in
the future for issuing security credentials.

Authenticity means linking the deed or document to the purported signatory.

Integrity means that the deed or document has not been altered or tampered with
after it has been signed.

Article 13(1), eIDAS.

Article 17(3)(b), eIDAS.

Article 3(16), eIDAS.

Article 19, eIDAS.

General Data Protection Regulation (679/2016/EU).

Government response, para 4.4.

Platforms use an email account as the basic method of authenticating the
signatory’s identity. Where a signatory signs with an AES, he or she is
authenticated by checking their passport or national ID card (if applicable) To
improve security and mitigate the risk of identity fraud, platforms offer
customers the option to use additional methods of authentication e.g. sending a
one-time passcode via SMS to the signatory that is required to access the
document; and knowledge-based authentication (KBA) where the signatory must
answer questions to access the document.

This should include consideration of how platforms can supplement the ways in
which the VERIFY service authenticates signatories.