Uncivil service

Local councils will do anything – even break the law – to protect their monopoly on conveyancing. Suzanne Hart investigates

Conveyancing and its practitioners have suffered much negative press over recent years. Lawyers have been pressed to reduce their fees and speed up processes. The client, the potential purchaser, wants things done yesterday.
However, the councils, an integral part of the conveyancing chain, refuse to support this commercial approach, retaining an insular stance to external demands and stamping on one of the very easy initiatives that lawyers want to use and which improves materially the competitive time of a conveyance.
There is one immediate way of speeding up the conveyancing process, and yet the councils work extremely hard at preventing its use. Their inbred bureaucracy is flavoured with apathy except where it extends to themselves. They have a hatred of those wishing to view the public registers coupled with a level of discourtesy mastered over years and adopted to extremes. These characteristics forbid change and make it unwelcome.
The self-protectionism exercised by the councils, their fear to move out of the cardigan clerical brigade and into an environment characterised by time pressures and accountability, prevents those wishing to buy a property from doing so until the council decides that it is okay.
So what is this saviour of the conveyancers? And why are the councils so adverse to its use?
To satisfy the lender, and as part of the due diligence of lawyers acting in a conveyance, information must be obtained from the local authority in which jurisdiction the property sits. Legislation permits the release of information held by a local authority on a property in two ways. Traditionally, the conveyancing lawyer would write to the local authority using forms LLC1 and Con 29 Part I, and enclose a cheque payable to the local authority. The local authorities' charges vary, and each authority is free to determine its own rate. Until such time as the forms circulate the relevant departments for completion of information, the conveyance cannot proceed. The lawyer and the prospective purchaser wait. They could take out search indemnity, but this does not provide the information, simply a form of cover in place of same, which is not in any case always applicable.
Over the past decade and more, and in an attempt to address the time pressures imposed on lawyers by clients, and more recently by central government, lawyers have utilised a facility permitted under legislation to send someone to the local authority to view the registers personally. The purist definition of this 'personal search' is a search of the Local Land Charges Register.
Over the years, the term 'personal search' has become the generic term for a search of the public registers pertaining to information required on a property in a conveyance. Where solicitors have not had the personnel to make the visit to the local authority, an agency has been instructed, to which the solicitor pays a fee. In the majority of cases the fee is lower than that charged by the local authority.
In many cases the personal search provides additional information not obtained on the traditionally requisitioned local authority search – for example current landfill, floodplain, radon levels, footpaths and so on.
The value to the lawyer, and more importantly to the client, the potential purchaser, is that they do not have to wait an indeterminate amount of time for the local authority to do its job. Personal search agencies turn searches around in only a few days.
As a consequence of the increased use of this second legislative method, local authorities have started to put their foot down. Many restrict access to public registers for limited periods during the day a few days a week, flying in the face of legislation. Some restrict the length of time a person may look at the register, and even when a searcher has not finished will instruct that person to leave the local authority premises. Local authorities say that they must balance the number of personal searches with the number of traditional searches with the emphasis on the traditional searches. Why? Because they gain more revenue on the traditional searches.
The rationale for this dislike of personal searches and searchers is a reduction in revenue suffered by the councils. A personal search will add £10 to the coffers of the local authority; a traditional search will add whatever the local authority wants to charge. Liverpool City Council, for example, using Part I, will charge between £5 and £30 per Con 29 Part II question, while a traditional search is £160. What the councils do not seem to fully realise is that the past decade has shown that lawyers want to speed things up; that the personal search provides sufficient information within an acceptable timeframe to enable conveyances to move quickly; and that lawyers are using personal searches to such an extent that it has created antipathy among the councils to the personal search. What business would ignore its customers so?
The Law Society is also at fault and does not support its members in this regard. The Law Society has a genuine concern that some lawyers accept retrospective discounts from some personal search agencies. When they are £20 or more, such discounts must be disclosed; but even when the discount is less, the Law Society does not like the practice anyway. Again, the rationale behind the use of the personal search is forgotten. It provides sufficient information very quickly and enables the conveyance to be more streamlined. Would a conveyancing lawyer risk their membership of the Law Society and livelihood for £20 per conveyancing transaction? I suspect that such cases of retrospective discount are in the minority.
The councils are not interested in considering that, as a consequence of their own inability to perform, the personal search has been taken up as the saving route. They are not interested in the outside world, only the perpetuation of a longstanding tradition of bureaucracy which retains the status quo – their status quo. They have no concept of competition and its effect, no concept of change for improvement, only a strong attachment to flexitime, early Friday closing and the retention of past times.
The councils avoid accountability. They are public servants that should be motivated by a desire to help and an openness to new ways to better serve their customers. Yet they seem to wish that the personal search would simply disappear so that they can get on with their jobs.
Personal search agencies, a stoical breed, run the logistical gauntlet daily as they cross districts and meet unreasonable access times by councils with the aim of giving customers what they want.
Of course, not all councils are uncooperative and not all personal search agencies are competent. But these facts do not devalue the personal search. The personal search bears examination. It would not be utilised by a vast number of lawyers if it did not serve its purpose.
The lenders, too, do not help. Investigating the written guidelines of the Council of Mortgage Members (CML), one notes that approximately 65 per cent indicate their acceptance of the personal search and note that, while the Halifax accepts, the Woolwich does not. Why? As a personal search agency, we have asked the question of several of the lenders that indicate their non-acceptance, many times with seldom a response and never a substantive one.
I am forming the opinion that the councils are a plague on conveyancing. They have no sense of ownership, simply self-protection. They have no pride in best service, simply self-service. They have no concern for the needs of their customers, save what they would like them to have. They must be challenged. Lawyers who use personal searches should urge for change among councils. For a more harmonious system, the marketplace should enforce the councils to provide what it asks for and not what the councils want to give.
Suzanne Hart is the founder and managing director of York Place Company Services