SCL Award

March 1, 1999

Do you remember the heady days of the late 1980s property boom, when it couldhave taken more than a week to get an Official Search result back from the LandRegistry? Or when it used to take the Registry many months to complete arelatively straightforward Dealing of Whole or First Registration application?Properties were changing hands so quickly and in such large numbers in thosedays that Registry staff were being stretched to the absolute limit. Owners,conveyancers, and lenders alike had become increasingly agitated at the longdelays they were experiencing.

That exceptionally busy period coincided with the roll out of the LandRegistry’s main computerisation project – a massive investment in newtechnology that has since revolutionised the way the Registry handles its corebusiness. By 1992 all of our District Land Registry offices located throughoutEngland and Wales were computerised, linked by fast kilostream telephone linesto powerful IBM mainframe computers in Plymouth.

1990 was undoubtedly a watershed for the Registry. Two significant events, inparticular, occured during that year which were to change the way we workedforever. Firstly, the Land Registry became a Government Agency – which allowedus to free ourselves from the shackles of the past and to transform ourselvesinto an innovative, forward-thinking, business-like organisation. And secondly,the Land Register itself became open to the public – before that date it hadbeen totally private (some might even say, secretive!).

The Law Society, the Council of Mortgage Lenders, and other bodies were quickto see the potential for gaining online access to the Land Registry’scomputerised data. We too realised that once we had started to computerise ourrecords, the likelihood of providing direct access was irresistible.

The Direct Access Service was officially launched in July 1997, following asuccessful pilot during 1995/96 which involved more than a 100 separateorganisations in all. Racal Telecom – our private sector partners in thisenterprise – were awarded a 4/5 year contract to run the service through theirsecure, managed, network as part of the government’s Private FinanceInitiative. There are now more than 1,200 organisations using the facility todaywith in excess of 4,000 individual users.

Why Become a Direct Access User?

Direct Access users can gain instant online access to nearly 16 millionregisters of title, obtaining essential information on ownership, mortgages andtitle, by using either a title number or, in many cases, a simple postaldescription. Registers and, if appropriate, details of pending applications, canbe viewed on screen in users’ own offices and hard copies printed out, all for£2. Not so long ago the fee for this transaction through Direct Access wouldhave been £5.

Searches of Whole can be lodged immediately. In most cases priority begins assoon as the application details have been accepted. A guaranteed result(time-stamped) is given on screen whenever the result is ‘clear’, ie whenthere are no pending applications or searches and no changes have been made tothe register since the date searched from. In all cases, a certificate of resultwill be supplied by post. What’s more, this service also only costs £2. Allother methods of delivery for such a search (eg post, DX, telephone, or inperson) attract a £4 fee – twice that for Direct Access. Anecdotalevidence suggests that users can quickly recoup hardware costs by regular use ofthis facility alone.

Users can also request office copies of any register, title plan or fileddocument and electronically deliver such transactions by simply pressing a fewkeys. Similarly, requests for searches of the Index Map, Land Charges searchesand office copy entries can be delivered instantly – no paperwork tofill in, no ‘copying in triplicate’ and no postage or handlingcosts.

Again, feedback from existing users indicates that it is the speed of theservice which has the strongest appeal. For example, our statistics prove thatusing Direct Access to find out the title number for a property, view itsregister (and details of any pending applications), take a screen print, order aproper office copy and lodge an Official Search of Whole takes literally a fewminutes. Under the old postal procedures it would have taken at least five daysto do each part of such a series of transactions!

At What Times is the Service Available?

We listen to our customers. Following strong user demand we have recentlyextended the hours of availability. The service is now available between 08.30and 18.30 hours on each normal working day of the week. We will, of course,continue to monitor usage to see if there is any value in extending these hourseven further, say, to Saturdays.

Who Uses Direct Access Now?

At present, only Land Registry credit account holders can apply to use theservice. All categories of law firm, from small one-man units to largeprestigious city outfits, are represented in our current list of Direct Accessusers. Top city-based corporate firms such as Clifford Chance, Lovell WhiteDurrant, Slaughter & May, Hammond Suddards, Eversheds and Norton Rose arekeen users.

Solicitor Lindsay Morgan says: ‘At Norton Rose, we are in business on aninternational scale. Our clients expect a fast and sophisticated legal servicefrom us, and overseas clients in particular expect the City of London to be atthe leading edge of technology. Direct Access is a major part of that.’

Leading lending institutions such as Abbey National, Halifax, Royal Bank ofScotland, Midland Bank and Alliance and Leicester also use Direct Access,illustrating just how important fast access to Land Registry data has become forcustomers in the financial sector. Many local authorities use Direct Access tocombat housing benefit fraud. Users such as the Commission for New Towns,railway companies and the Insolvency Service demonstrate the wide variety ofbusiness uses to which the service can be applied.

What About the Future?

Dr Stuart Hill, the Chief Land Registrar, is a strong supporter of theRegistry’s commitment to a policy of continual improvement and states: ‘Wewill build upon our reputation as a highly successful executive agency to becomea world-class provider of information on land registration.’

There are many exciting IT developments already in the pipeline. Forinstance, during 1999 the Registry intends to pilot a Web-enabled version ofDirect Access which will give online access to title plans and eventually fileddocuments, alongside all the other existing Direct Access facilities. It willalso give users much better quality register prints.

The small, but very successful, pilot of Electronic Notification ofDischarges (ENDs) which is currently under way with the Stroud & SwindonBuilding Society will be extended. This facility allows discharges of mortgageto be processed completely electronically, ie no Forms DS1 (formerly Form53) to fill in at all. The Nationwide Building Society will be joining thispilot very soon and, because of the sheer volume of work it is likely togenerate, solicitors will quickly become familiar with the ENDs procedures. TheRegistry has more than a passing interest in the outcome of this particularpilot since, as many readers will be aware, it brings together many of theelements of electronic conveyancing – a concept that the Registry expects toturn into reality within the next few years.

Development work has already started on providing online results for LandCharges searches, a much requested enhancement.

Other facilities on our customers’ ‘wish list’ include the following:

  • Electronic delivery of Family Law Act (formerly Matrimonial Homes Act) searches
  • Access to the Public Index Map
  • Use of credit cards (instead of credit accounts)
  • Access to credit account information (ie viewing statements of account online)
  • Lower fees for office copies obtained through Direct Access
  • 24-hour access to Land Registry data
  • Availability of property price information (currently the subject of consultation at ministerial level).

The Seller’s Log Book

The much-publicised idea of a ‘seller’s log-book’ for individualproperties will open up new business opportunities for property professionals.People expect quick and easy access to property information nowadays and weintend that Direct Access should be an integral part of that initiative.

SCL Award

The Land Registry’s Direct Access Service team is extremely proud to havewon the prestigious SCL Award for innovation in IT in law – especially so inview of the strength and variety of the other shortlisted candidates. The Awardwill have pride of place in the Registry’s ‘trophy cabinet’ as we moveforward to face fresh challenges in the increasingly sophisticated world ofproperty information.

More information about the Direct Access Service can be obtained from: TheDirect Access Service Manager; HM Land Registry, 32 Lincoln’s Inn Fields,London WC2A 3PH. Telephone: 0171 9175939.

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