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By Eddie Goldsmith

Founder, YouConvey

OTHER FEATURES

The Conveyancing Crisis - how can we fix it?

There has been so much coverage recently over how painfully slow conveyancing is at the moment - 18-20 weeks is now a typical transaction time (longer with leaseholds or unusual titles), but I have rarely seen such vitriol in the press about the conveyancing process and conveyancers themselves. 

Words like “shambolic” “archaic” and “draconian” have been bandied about by commentators such as  Russell Quirk.

We all know there is a problem - the question is, how can we fix it?

Some facts first. There are approximately 3,750 firms of solicitors who undertake conveyancing, out of which approximately 300 are what you would call specialists - i.e. they do enough to consider it as a core service. There are around 1,800 Licenced Conveyancers (specialist property lawyers) with a small number of very large firms doing a good volume of work.

Taking those large firms together, they will do around 20-25% maximum of the 1m+ transactions a year. This leaves 75-80% of all transactions spread around thousands of smaller firms.

Professor Richard Susskind, a leading academic in the legal profession, once referred to the conveyancing industry as a 'cottage industry' and, like many other home-based industries, it needed and was undergoing industrialisation. That was 40 years ago and not a lot has changed since then - Russell would absolutely agree with me on that point.

The question really is: why has it not changed and indeed become worse?  

Back in the 70s, we regularly exchanged and completed transactions within 12 weeks. Life generally was simpler then. No ID  checks, no source of funds verification, no long written back-covering reports to customers who probably didn't read or understand them. What's more, customer expectations were better managed.

There was invariably four weeks between exchange and completion and, generally speaking, everyone (solicitors and agents)  rubbed along together well, particularly at long, frequent business lunches. 

Fast forward to the 2020s and the world in general has changed. Client expectations are that conveyancing is just another digital service which can be bought from anyone, who will do exactly the same process. As a result, competition for customers, whether for agents or conveyancers, is much more intense. The existing paper-based conveyancing process just does not fit comfortably with everyday digital offerings available from mobile phones. And therein lies the problem. We live in a digital world, but conveyancing is still inhabiting the analogue. 

Things are changing, of course. There are lots of PropTech initiatives out there from Land Registry Digital Processes and e-signatures to industry innovations such as Coadjute. Overseas companies such as Pexa are now with us in the UK hoping to be the catalyst in transforming the system.

But all this is going to take time and the question is therefore what can we do now to improve the process, both for customers and for their professional advisers.

There are initiatives which are beginning to help shorten timescales. Upfront Information is certainly gaining significant momentum and there are hardly any observers out there who would argue more information upfront is not a good thing.

Collaboration between agents and conveyancers again is a no-brainer. We are all professional people looking to do the best for our clients and indeed working towards the same objectives. It makes absolute sense to work together 'canned heat wise' to oil the wheels of transactions. I'm sure no-one out there will argue against collaboration. 

So, what else can be done whilst we are industrialising conveyancing?

Agents could buy or build their own in-house conveyancers. It's a model which is working for some (a limited number, mind), but it's not found favour generally. Lenders have shied away from it completely. 

The reality is that it is expensive to set up a law firm and it comes with a significant resource neccesity to deal with regulatory and compliance matters. Professional indemnity is punishing and getting more expensive all the time. Unless you are a big agent with significant volume, and you are confident you can direct that volume through your in-house conveyancers, the model doesn't really stack up.

There is actually a simpler and far more effective way to calm the market down and for conveyancers to provide the level of service that customers expect and pay for, but it takes a brave conveyancer to follow that model. The reality is that conveyancers take on too much work and don't charge enough. That's it.

Reducing the workload of each conveyancer by 30-40% would overnight provide some much-needed room to give customers more time. We see it in the NHS with doctors complaining they can't give the necessary time to patients and it's exactly the same in conveyancing.

I know it sounds so simplistic, but I don't know a single conveyancer who would disagree with me that a smaller workload would enable them to provide more time for their clients.

So, whilst we are waiting for Conveyancing Analogue to become Conveyancing Digital, let's just reduce our staff’s workloads and help everyone including themselves.

Simples.

*Eddie Goldsmith is the founder of YouConvey, which aims to offer collaborative conveyancing for 21st century customers. He is also a former chairman of the Conveyancing Associaton.

  • Rob Hailstone

    I am all for higher conveyancing fees and more manageable workloads, and I'm no mathematical genius, but won't that mean that there are not enough conveyancers to carry out the dropped 30% - 40%?

  • Rob Hailstone

    “I find the biggest hurdle is the source of funds checks we have to do before we can commence substantive work. I appreciate there are tools to assist with this but we have to carry out extensive checks and it can take clients weeks to provide the necessary information. That is what sets transaction times back in my experience. We will comply with our regulatory obligations but if all parties including government want the process to speed up then I think the onus should be placed at an earlier stage on banks for example when dealing with mortgage applications or a government hub where buyers have to provide funding information that then has to be determined by a government body whether it is satisfactory before they can make an offer on a property. That would reduce conveyancing times substantially.” Richard Bland, Partner at Carter Bells LLP, Via LinkedIn

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    A good start would be to allow firms to email certain documents, rather than making them fax them!

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