PISCES and Residential Conveyancing

April 30, 2003

The PISCES Standard is a set of definitions and rules that facilitate the automatic transfer of data between different types of software packages that are used regularly by those involved in property transactions. The Standard defines a vocabulary (the data items) and grammar (order and file format) that allow any two systems to exchange information unambiguously. It is not itself a piece of software but an enabling technology that allows software providers to prepare solutions within their own packages to transfer data between databases.

PISCES enables the electronic transfer of information directly from one system into another, and removes the need to send hard copy and, more importantly, the need to re-enter data manually.

Re-keying data is not only time-consuming, but also carries substantial business risks. Although data is nowadays readily ported between offices in the form of electronic file attachments that can be sent via the Internet, the data content cannot be read directly into the receiving system. Even if the data is received in a standard pro forma (a Land Registry search request, for example), it currently remains stuck in that file.

The need for a standard for transmitting property data stems from the dispersed business relationships which are inherent to the real estate industry. Properties are commonly owned by one party; externally managed; and independently valued by another party. Owners and managers also need to export data to lawyers, and to third-party service providers to populate portfolio models or performance measurement software. The PISCES initiative stemmed from the recognition of this problem amongst key UK providers of valuation, management and analysis software, and later from the legal profession.

PISCES is based on Extensible Markup Language (XML) – the universal format for structured documents and data on the Internet. This ensures that PISCES is open and conformant to global standards for electronic data exchange. By using XML, PISCES documents can be easily shared over the Internet whilst enabling global compatibility with non-PISCES systems that can understand XML.

The PISCES Standard undergoes a continuous review and revision cycle via a Request For Change mechanism. This ensures that it is always current with users’ needs. Furthermore, components of the PISCES Standard are now in place and operational in a number of commercially used software systems, which offers demonstrable evidence of the benefits that the Standard is already bringing to the property profession.

Management of PISCES

Evolution of the Standard is managed by the board of PISCES Ltd, following a procedure based on the method recommended by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) for the development of XML standards in general. The Standard requires a business framework to maintain and upgrade the existing Standard, both to control its development and to encourage implementation.

PISCES Limited is the company set up to administer the Standard. It is a non-profit-making company limited by guarantee, taking financial support through membership fees. The company employs one full-time and two part-time members of staff – a full time Technical Manager (Catherine Williams), a part-time Business Manager (Vida Godson) and a part-time Company Secretary (Mustafa Datoo). All staff report to the Board of Directors (unpaid), who are nominated and elected by the Executive members. Current members of the board are listed on the PISCES Web site (www.pisces.co.uk).

The board operates with support from the Technical Group. This is a volunteer group of members, chaired by the Technical Manager, who are responsible for all technical aspects of the Standard. The Technical Group co-ordinates and supports all Working Groups.

PISCES Residential Working Group

The aim of the Residential Working Group (RWG) is to ensure PISCES supports all processes affecting the sale, purchase and mortgage of residential property in a way that is accessible and conducive to widespread adoption and ultimately facilitates faster and easier transactions. Initially the RWG will be agreeing the data required to:

(i) carry out conveyancing and to complete the purchase or sale of an owner-occupied residential property, including any associated mortgage and insurance requirements; and

(ii) undertake a remortgage of an owner-occupied residential property.

The Group intends to consider valuation requirements and buy-to-let but they are likely to be treated as second stage requirements.

What would I like to see it achieve?

What I would like to see is agreement of all those involved in the residential conveyancing process on the data which each requires and how that data should be passed between systems ensuring safer and smoother transactions. In my view, the work of the RWG needs to involve and consider contributions from all those parties that interact with the conveyancing process and, importantly, the Land Registry (which is the enabler of the e-conveyancing evolution) and the lenders, who are financing house purchases. The initial work of the RWG needs the support from the lenders and the Land Registry, who will be key influences in the shape of future conveyancing. Lenders and the Land Registry have been represented so far to familiarise themselves with the scope of the RWG and the Land Registry and the Council of Mortgage Lenders are represented at meetings of the RWG.

Why lawyers should be involved?

Lawyers who undertake conveyancing should be keenly interested in this initiative because the agreement of industry-wide data standards will enable them to deliver a better and more stress free house moving experience for themselves in practice and for their clients. Such standards will enable them to reduce the internal cost of doing the work and to integrate further their process with the Land Registry and the lenders, for example when registering title and providing reports on title. More seamless information exchange with estate agents and valuers would also become available by using systems which are PISCES compliant once the data standards are agreed. The Legal Software Suppliers Association are involved in the RWG, opening up the prospect of acceptance of the eventually agreed PISCES standards for systems being made available to lawyers in practice.

It is important for conveyancers to engage in this initiative as they are at the heart of the conveyancing process and are an important part of the house buying/selling experience.

How can PISCES contribute

The Land Registry’s vision is for a paperless e-conveyancing system that will allow for a permanent connection between itself and practitioners in the property cycle.

PISCES has already completed five years work towards the development of an electronic data standard that we feel will fulfil these requirements and facilitate the necessary communications between all property transactions.

The PISCES Residential Working Group inlcudes a number of leading players in the UK legal and property industries, providing a ready-made forum for the discussion and development of e-conveyancing issues which is unfettered by commercial interests.

Richard Dinning

Chairman RWG and Chairman enact direct legal solutions.