The Land Registry aims to take over conveyancing searches – well Local Authority searches – to start

15 May 2013

At the moment, conveyancing solicitors have a multitude of different methods to secure the same information – the 'Local Authority search'. This is a key conveyancing search as it provides a wide range of vital information for anyone buying a property.

It can reveal highway information, planning records, tree preservation orders, road and rail schemes and conservation areas. It remains an essential part of buying a home, and mortgage lenders will usually require such a search before releasing the mortgage funds.

The majority of conveyancing solicitors adopt the traditional and most obvious method by making such a search by requesting it direct of the relevant Local Authority. Information direct from the 'horses mouth' as it were, and who can blame the conveyancer if the information proves inaccurate.

However, many businesses have sprung up to 'help' conveyancers secure the same information, but not as directly, and conveyancers have chosen to take them up. For instance, search companies will send their own employees to the Local Authority office and who will physically inspect the Council records themselves, interpreting what they see, making notes and then when back at their office, they prepare a report with the information. What is referred to as a 'Personal Local Authority search'. This is a cheaper form of the same result, as the business is able to undercut the Local Authority fee.

The controversy here is that this is second or third hand information by the time it lands in the conveyancers hands, it is not prepared or interpreted by the Local Authority staff, and perhaps most of all, this indirect approach may not have been disclosed to the conveyancer's client as the option the conveyancer chooses.

If an error results, the conveyancer will of course be asked "Did you inform your client you were using this indirect search method" and "Did you explain why you are not adopting the traditional 'horses mouth' approach to securing the usual search information?"

But why do conveyancers use an indirect method for such an important search? Speed? Cost? More comprehensive information?

The search businesses would suggest the latter, but it is the first two that play on most conveyancers minds. Local Authorities can take days if not weeks on occasion to turn around their search results, and if a property deal needs to be dealt with fast, then sending someone to the Council offices will (or should) be quicker. Indeed, the search businesses can undercut the Council charge too – proving attractive to clients (if the conveyancer has fully informed the client that is).

Indeed, there is an additional reason for the popularity of these search businesses' success. They will almost always be able to act as a central portal to take orders for all the other searches that a conveyancer needs to carry out. So using one company for all searches has an attraction, and with so many conveyancers competing on price (and for many not on quality) the cheaper they can provide a package of search products, the cheaper their overall quote they can give to those seeking the cheapest conveyancer. If the search company offers to carry out any at a cheaper than normal price, this will be attractive to some conveyancers.

And it would be fair to say that all conveyancers will use a search business to source all their searches in one go, as it will indeed be cheaper in total that separate search requests – but as we have seen, not all will choose or even risk using a personal Local Authority search. They will request the search businesses to simply supply all official searches.

But choosing which search business is again a task, as there are a multitude, who take different times, different style of presentation, and who vary in fees. Some add their own fee for carrying out the searches, and some make their own fee by securing a discount with the data provider through ordering in bulk – a preference many solicitors adopt as better in the interests of their clients.

But there is now a threat to these search businesses. First is the severe reduction in the use by conveyancers of Chancel Repair searches in October this year, and now, recently reported in the media is the Land Registry's interest in taking over the provision of the Local Authority search. They have been working with numerous Local Authority councils on a scheme to consolidate their data records into a central register held at the Land Registry. If successful, they will secure the data of al Local Authorities which will then enable conveyancing solicitors to obtain – official non-personal – Local Authority search data at the touch of a button like they can when asking the Land Registry for a copy of a registered property deed. It will also mean a standardised price, format and turnaround time leading to a quicker and cheaper conveyancing searches due to the fact that at present, there are huge variations in the way in which individual Local Authorities keep their records and the speed with which they respond to search requests by conveyancing solicitors.

This plan will of course seriously reduce the revenue of search businesses – and of course they are not happy, whether the result is actually better for the house buyer or not. Indeed, it gets worse for them, the Land Registry's plan is also intended to incorporate the Coal Authority’s records about coal mining activity, the loss of another search for them, and probably over the one term, more searches may follow.

All potentially great news for conveyancing solicitors, the buyer, and the speed for conveyancing transactions.