Group Reports

April 30, 1999


Peter Aiken is a Member of the Scottish Committee of SCL andreports on the Group’s Meeting held in Edinburgh on 8 December 1998.

For the last Scottish Group meeting of 1998 members were invited to theoffices of Edinburgh Solicitors Morton Fraser Partnership where their ChiefExecutive, Gordon Kerr, provided a detailed and thought-provoking presentationof how his firm had introduced case management. He outlined the motives forintroducing case management, the problems which had been encountered and hisplans for the future development of the project.

It was indeed refreshing that a firm was prepared to allow other solicitorsinto the inner sanctum of their computer network in order to explain and displaywhat to many had been, up until that time, simply a concept. The presentationallowed those who were perhaps thinking of developing such a system to considerthe consequences and the likelihood of success within their own firms.

Gordon explained how in 1996 the Morton Fraser Partnership restructuredthemselves and made a conscious effort to integrate many of the functions withinthe practice. They had a commitment to allow their clients access to as muchinformation concerning their transactions as possible. He highlighted the wellpublicised benefits of case management systems such as greater controls indelegating work to legal assistants and paralegals and being able to work withlarge volumes of work such as remortgage conveyancing.

Gordon was careful to point out that case management did not necessarily fitinto all parts of the firm and currently it was being used by his litigationdepartment, for certain specialised estate agency and conveyancing work, and bythe firm’s relocation company. Careful consideration had been given as towhether the introduction of the system would actually produce profit. GordonKerr stressed that there was absolutely no point in introducing the system intoa department if it was not going to provide either competitive advantage orfinancial reward. He was however able to report that within the departments inwhich the programme had been introduced savings of up to 50% had been achievedtogether with the ability to process higher volumes of business with safety.

Having installed the case management system, the firm had progressed fromwhat was effectively an internal system which allowed greater control withhigher volumes of business to actually allowing their clients direct access intothe case management system via the Internet. The firm had established anextranet providing information about transactions using a specially developedWeb site. After consultation with clients as to their needs, a program had beenbuilt to provide the client with data concerning work undertaken on theirbehalf. Such a program gave the firm a worldwide benefit and undoubtedly boundthe client to the firm through the use of the system.

What was more interesting to hear was where Gordon Kerr believed thistechnology was going to lead. The audience became aware that technology of thistype was going to re-structure the traditional way of administering law. Overthe past few years much has been talked about management systems and theInternet – here was an example of the two being used in a practical way. Itproved that clients are looking for ways to integrate their own computerdevelopment with those within the legal profession. It will be the ability offirms to adapt and take on such technology that will allow them to attract andsecure business in the future – domestic conveyancers take note.

This thought-provoking and highly successful presentation provided theaudience with a clear message that they should go back to their offices in orderto ascertain whether such a system could provide competitive advantage for themand perhaps more importantly to keep an eye on developments within theinstitutions who provide much of the traditional legal work for firms throughoutthe country. Case management is likely to change the way institutions instructand require solicitors to handle their work and clearly Gordon Kerr and thepartners of the Morton Fraser Partnership have grasped the technology and areputting it to very good use.


Richard Abbott, vice-chairman of the Northern Group reports onthe last meeting.

Michael Peeters, a partner in the IT Law Group of PinsentCurtis, introduced the subject of e-commerce and discussed the main issues.David Swarbrick of Swarbrick &Co spoke about the structure, use andregulation of encryption technologies.

Business has been slow to embrace the Internet but this ischanging, especially as regards smaller consumer transactions. As the risks ofusing the Internet are addressed we can expect an increase in largertransactions.

In its favour the Internet is efficient with low overheads andup- to-date data. It is also readily available, without the limitations ofgeography or opening hours. However, issues of security, contract, regulationand tax remain to be determined.

For consumer trade, websites are used as catalogues for sale,with payment generally being made by credit card. However we are seeing theintroduction of electronic cash and electronic bank accounts. For non-consumertrade, the Internet is used as a communication tool for negotiators withwebsites used as advertisements more than a means of selling. This is graduallychanging with trading mechanisms for existing customers and customer accountsbeing established.

The main obstacle to more widespread use of e-commerce issecurity. There need to be safeguards against fraud and hacking with agreementon the use of electronic signatures and encryption.

The basic contractual rules are the same as with non-electronictransactions. That is the need to prove offer and acceptance. As an example ofthe issues e-commerce raise we looked at `click-wrap’ agreements whereacceptance of contractual terms is made by pressing an acceptance key.

The European Commission proposes to harmonise recognition ofelectronic signatures throughout the European Union. The proposed E-CommerceDirective aims to define electronic contracts and the liability ofintermediaries together with making provision for settlement of disputes. MemberStates will have to remove prohibitions of electronic media for concludingcontracts. We looked at the DTI’s proposals arising from the White Paper oncompetition.

Of particular importance to the development of e-commerce isencryption. We looked at single and dual key encryption. The single key, witheach party using the same key, is simple and suitable for small groups who knoweach other well. It is also the system likely to be used by criminals. The dualkey is used for mass encryption and e-commerce. There are two keys. The privateone is used for encrypting a document, and is always kept secret. The secondkey, used for opening a document, is public. It is this dual key system thatgovernments wish to regulate.

It was an interesting evening and our thanks go to MichaelPeeters and David Swarbrick for their presentations and to Pinsent Curtis inLeeds for their hospitality.


Jackie Wilson, Chair of the Solent Group, reports on its mostrecent meeting.

Sahib Seherawat is the District Land Registrar at PortsmouthDistrict Land Registry and on 23 February 1999 he spoke to the Solent Group onthree subjects:

  • Land Registration for the 21st century: the proposed changes stemming from last year’s consultation document.
  • The Land Registry’s Direct Access Service: which was the winner of the 1999 SCL Award.
  • The National Land Information Service: winner of the British Computer Society IT award for 1998.

The picture he painted of conveyancing in the next century was stunning.

Land Registration for the 21st Century

After last year’s consultation document the responses have been analysed anda draft bill has been prepared. The Lord Chancellor is apparently very keen onthe changes and it is hoped that the bill might be on the statute books by theyear 2000. If enacted it will introduce paperless conveyancing in which thepresent three-stage process will be reduced to one. Under the proposed changesall searches will be made via the direct access service (Forms 94A and the likewill be things of the past).

All documents will be in electronic format so that they can be exchanged viathe Internet. Documents will be signed by solicitors (who will have a duty toverify their client’s identity) and details of exchange will be noted by thesolicitor directly on to the register. A contract will not be valid until sonoted.

Similarly there will be no transfer document, no charge certificate andelectronic discharge of charges registered against the property.

The benefits are seen as easier, cheaper and quicker conveyancing,elimination of the ` registration gap’ and no need for storage repositories. Thework of the Land Registry will change – they will police the new system and willacquire an important new advisory role. To reflect their reduced role indealings and the increased obligations upon solicitors, Land Registry fees willfall.

The precise terms of the new legislation are an unknown quantity and thereare undoubtedly issues that still need to be resolved but Mr Seherawat left usin no doubt that in some form electronic conveyancing is a certainty.

The Land Registry’s Direct Access Service

The Land Registry Direct Access Service is now available online and alreadyhas 1,250 users – from April this year it will be available via the Internet.100% of filed plans will be available by the Year 2000, and all deeds withinthree to four years. The benefits are instantaneous access with informationprinted in the solicitor’s office. The service is cheaper than using post ortelephone and the costs are set to reduce even further.

National Land Information Service

The National Land Information Service has completed its pilot run in theBristol area. It has received ministerial approval to be extended to anationwide service and the first tranche of funds has been made available tobegin work. The Bristol pilot pulled together the Land Registry, OrdinanceSurvey, The Valuation Office and Bristol City Council. Once an online enquiry ismade to the hub computer (at the Land Registry) it would seek information fromthe four key providers, integrate the data and return to the enquirer. This maybe within a matter of minutes or at most 24 hours.


Mr Seherawat expressed the view that these changes were good news for lawyers- electronic conveyancing in particular would `bring conveyancing back to thelawyers’. The audience was less sure but the technology is available, it hasbeen tested and the case for using it is compelling. In a way that the new civiljustice rules, with their reliance on 20th century technology, have failed toachieve, the changes taking place at the Land Registry must serve as a wake-upcall to the profession: get connected or give up.