The National Land Information Service

March 1, 2002

Most of what the conveyancer is expected to do during a conveyance relates to process rather than opinion. The processes of proving good title and the subsequent transfer of that title are time consuming and uncertain for a number of reasons. The difficulties are shared by all law firms, large or small – those specialising in commercial and those that focus on residential conveyancing.

Over the next few years, technology and legislation will transform this process through more efficient provision of information. Most information required during the property transaction is held by third parties, remote from the user, and is subject to change. The challenge for technology and legislation is to provide fast, reliable and secure access to this information. The challenge for the conveyancer is to trust the medium.

This article is about how conveyancing processes have been re-engineered or are about to be. The first part of this electronic conveyancing revolution is here and it is called the National Land Information Service (NLIS). Conveyancing searches collectively represent a significant proportion of the information required by the property conveyancer and NLIS provides a re-engineered process to manage the referencing and extraction of this information more efficiently.

What is NLIS?

NLIS is a political initiative to automate and integrate the conveyancing search process in England and Wales. The purpose is to improve the provision of publicly held land and property information.

This initiative is underpinned by several others from government that further support the creation of a digital route to deliver government information to those that need it. The pressure for change is also being driven by the demands of the house buying public, advances in technology and the need for lenders (and others) to retain customers.

The NLIS services and the infrastructure have been built, financed and are operated by the private sector – by businesses such as Searchflow. In return these businesses receive the benefit of a licence to provide commercial services delivering NLIS information.

NLIS Structure and Operation

The infrastructure comprises a single hub and (currently) three channels.

The structure is most easily understood through a wholesaler (hub) and retailer (channels) analogy. This analogy also serves to emphasise that access to NLIS will be via the channels. Three channel licences have so far been issued – to Searchflow, Teramedia and Transaction Online. These access points are effectively secure Web sites accessible from the conveyancer’s desktop computer. These Web sites use databases and secure Internet connections to reference and distribute conveyancing searches.

The existing statutory indemnities also apply to the electronic method of distribution. The channels, like the Post Office, are not liable for the content of what they distribute. The channels, like the Post Office, are responsible for the security of the package and integrity of the content as it flows through the distribution system.

Current Status

The NLIS channels opened for business in the Summer of 2001 – prior to the formal launch of NLIS in 2002. Since soft launch in the summer, 360 of the 400 odd local authorities have processed a search through NLIS. While all local authorities are joined to NLIS, not all are connected electronically. To date, some 25% are; and that percentage is expected to grow significantly over the coming months. Apart from local authorities, Her Majesty’s Land Registry and the Coal Authority provide information through NLIS. Other information providers will sign up to NLIS in due course.

The initial service application of NLIS is the provision of conveyancing search information. The three channels are, obviously, in competition with each other. They seek to differentiate themselves through added value.

Searchflow’s Differentiating Features

Non-NLIS Searches Searchflow is able to deal with all searches required by the conveyancer – even those that cannot currently be sent through NLIS (ie via the hub). It is likely that a proportion of these information providers will not connect to NLIS for some time. It is important to provide conveyancers with a total rather than a partial solution to their search needs.

Identification of relevant searches Searchflow is the only channel that identifies the searches the conveyancer should undertake. The CML handbook requires conveyancers to undertake all relevant searches and Searchflow provides them with a tool of best practice to meet this requirement with confidence.

Security and integrity of data flow Searchflow is alone amongst the channels in having gained BS7799 accreditation. In fact, only 37 companies in the country hold this standard. It provides independent confirmation of the security and integrity of the information as it flows through the Searchflow channel.

Established product Searchflow has successfully provided 60,000 conveyancing searches already. This has enabled informed development of Searchflow as well as establishing confidence in the service in the marketplace

Service experience The management and staff of Searchflow have 20 years experience of providing conveyancing searches.

Knowledge base The service knowledge behind any Web site is essential for customer service and help desk functions. A proportion of search instructions will require human intervention to facilitate the automated process – most of the assistance will be beyond the typical Call Centre. Searchflow is alone amongst the channels in having this knowledge base.

Technical experience Through ESRI (the major shareholder), Searchflow has the benefit of the technology built to provide search-processing systems to 200 of the 400 local authorities.

Award winning Searchflow has won the Information Society Initiative Award 2000, the Information Management Award 2000 and now the SCL Award.

Future Developments

The first service application of NLIS is the provision of conveyancing searches. NLIS has the potential, however, to develop into a much wider proposition. Indeed, the second phase of this electronic conveyancing revolution – electronic registration of title and electronic fund transfer – will build from the technical infrastructure that is NLIS. This is a good news story. It is a story of how technology will transform conveyancing from a time-consuming, uncertain and frustrating process into a fast, efficient one. These future developments are currently being legislated for through Parliament (the Land Registration Bill) and an operational model of how this will be achieved is being demonstrated around the country by Her Majesty’s Land Registry (HMLR). NLIS channels like Searchflow are developing now to facilitate electronic land registration in anticipation of the public private partnership that HMLR is seeking to achieve in its plans.

The other government initiative – seller’s packs – is still in abeyance pending review. We should note, however, that this is a manifesto commitment and the current plan is to introduce a new Bill into parliament with implementation by 2005. Technology – driven by commerce – will not wait for legislation. The concept of the seller’s pack may be obsolete well before 2005. Certainly, the NLIS channels, again, will be able to deliver on this using the infrastructure which they have already built.


Some commercial operations are seeking to exploit the fear and ignorance in the marketplace; declaring that the conveyancer must adapt or die. The implication is that they must adapt by joining to that commercial operation’s solution. Conveyancers should resist this humbug and not allow the marketeers to confuse the issue through talk of ‘national infrastructures’. There will be competition and choice in the NLIS marketplace and the conveyancer should consider the options.

NLIS is not a story of how the conveyancer will be replaced or even undermined – the knowledge (the opinion) of the conveyancer will still drive the process but now the vehicle is more efficient. This is a story of how technology, properly harnessed, can deliver real service benefit to the conveyancer. And if ever there was a process that was in need of re-engineering in this way, it is conveyancing.

Many law firms have extremely efficient, in-house systems using case management technology. But the conveyancing search process, pre-NLIS, sat largely outside these systems using up resource and creating inefficiencies. As recently as last month, a firm was preparing search requests on a large commercial portfolio of 700 properties, estimating that it would take five people one week to prepare the searches. Using one of the NLIS channels (in this case, Searchflow), one person was able to complete the job – with greater certainty – in the same time.

The most serious defect of the old conveyancing search process, however, was not, in fact, the time it took. It was the lack of certainty in property description and the identification of relevant search information providers. This lack of certainty represents risk for the buyer and lender. But all this is a thing of the past now that NLIS is available.

The most common mis-perception of NLIS in the legal marketplace is that NLIS benefits relate only to the automation and integration of search distribution. NLIS channels will transform not just the sending and delivery of conveyancing searches but also the efficiency of the in-house processing of these searches. This is the key point and it is one that many conveyancers and property support conveyancers miss when assessing NLIS. NLIS drives in greater certainty and efficiency in the process that sits within the conveyancer’s office.

Re-engineering the Process

It is important to stress that, as always, re-engineering requires a deep understanding of the process and the service requirements. Only then can technology be applied to deliver service improvement.

In analysing the process, Searchflow, as one of the NLIS channels, saw three principle opportunities to deliver significant improvements:

  • a means of obtaining and validating an unambiguous description of land or property for search purposes
  • identification of search information sources that may hold information relevant to the land or property being bought or sold
  • an efficient and easy method of ordering, tracking and extracting conveyancing search information from the relevant sources.

NLIS delivers all three of these benefits using a national gazetteer, maps, a comprehensive database of search information sources and a one-stop shop for ordering all searches from the conveyancer’s desktop.

The above process analysis serves to re-emphasise that it is not just about automation and integration of the distribution channel. For example, both search validation and identification of relevant searches are benefits that the conveyancer derives from NLIS regardless of data provider take-up or speed of distribution. These benefits deliver greater certainty and efficiency of process within the law firm.

Seamless Links

The first task was to deliver a more efficient and certain conveyancing search service. This has been achieved and is now available to law firms. The next task, clearly, is to link this service seamlessly with other conveyancer applications (eg case management systems). For the IT director/manager at the law firm the choice is between investing in a new integrated system that does everything needed or aggregating solutions that add up to the same and linking them. For many firms, given the heavy recent investments made, it would be preferable to do the latter. This linkage is a further component of the provision of a re-engineered conveyancing service. It is quite simple; the conveyancer does not want to have to enter the same information into different applications because it uses up resources and leaves room for error. For that reason, NLIS (through the channels) has developed connection solutions to avoid this from a loose coupling solution using URLs to tight integration using an open API transferring data using XML. Depending on the applications used and the investment required and available, the NLIS channels can be plugged into your existing conveyancing management applications thereby avoiding double entry of data. For those firms that require, and are prepared to invest in, an integrated conveyancing solution, the NLIS channels are able, together with partners, to provide this solution as well.


One challenge for NLIS is its speed of development, and managing expectations. While a huge amount has been achieved in a short space of time, NLIS was never going to provide a conveyancing big bang style solution. It will take time for all the local authorities to modernise fully and to provide rapid electronic searches. Having said that, conveyancers are getting searches back now through NLIS from some local authorities within hours (as opposed to the 10 days it typically takes for a postal search). The record is currently one and a half hours. This will become the norm – but not yet.

Another challenge arises from the level of technical capability within the law firm. Of course this is more an issue with smaller firms but some large firms, surprisingly, have issues. Particularly this relates to such things as workstation RAM, bandwidth and the security settings on the firewall and/or proxy server. A surprisingly large number of firms have inadequate bandwidth and inappropriate security settings. In addition, the whole debate in the legal profession about security over the Internet seems bizarre while highly confidential papers continue to be distributed using motorcycle couriers.

The greatest challenge for NLIS, though, is managing change – converting the conveyancing search process from an offline to an online community. Conveyancers need to commit to change, to ensure that, once they are convinced that NLIS provides a best practice opportunity, they seize that opportunity by proactively changing old, inefficient but familiar and comfortable ways of working. Our experience to date, having successfully served 60,000 searches electronically to some 350 law firms from within one of the NLIS channels, is that many firms are not realising the maximum benefit from NLIS because of resistance to change and a lack of management will to make it happen.


By using an NLIS channel:

  • time and resource is used more efficiently
  • the address to be searched is matched against the gazetteer used by the local authorities etc to prevent return or mis-interpretation
  • on demand, on-line maps are provided that can be annotated to unambiguously define the extent of the search
  • searches required are rapidly and certainly identified (channels vary in their ability to deliver this benefit)
  • a one-stop shop for conveyancing searches is available from the conveyancer’s desktop (channels vary in their ability to deliver on this benefit).


NLIS will transform the way you work. In order to benefit from this revolution you will need to sign up to one of the three NLIS channels. For the conveyancer, the Searchflow service will provide a means of ordering and receiving back conveyancing searches from a desktop computer. All they need is the address of the property to be searched and the client or matter reference.

The benefits of the service go far beyond simply replacing the stamp and the envelope, however. Searchflow has re-engineered the existing conveyancing search process from end to end – through validating the search address; identifying relevant searches; and sending/receiving tracking searches. In doing so, Searchflow transforms a time consuming and uncertain process into one of best practice.

Mark Riddick is Chief Executive of Searchflow.