Land Registration Bill [Lords]

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Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): Like most hon. Members, I welcome the Bill, but some important aspects warrant further study and some require change. The Minister said that the Bill is important because it will impact on the lives of all our constituents—or at least most of them. From the start, I will declare that I was a practising solicitor for many years and, apparently, that must still appear on the Register of Members' Interests, notwithstanding that I ceased to practice years ago.

Although land law and conveyancing was not the principal area of my work, I did some conveyancing work, especially in connection with trust law and tax law. I dealt with much unregistered property and, although my knowledge is rather out of date, I understand that the only land that falls to be purchased compulsorily is that which is unregistered and sold for consideration, which must then be registered at the Land Registry.

I should like to put on record my thanks to Mr. Charles Harpum and the Law Commission for their work on the Bill and to bring the system of land registration up to date. I shall later refer to a useful debate on electronic conveyancing that took place on 9 November 2000.

I support steps to make conveyancing simpler, more accurate and expeditious, and less costly. There is still a significant amount of unregistered land, especially in my constituency, and I should declare that I am the owner of some of it.

The Chairman: The hon. Gentleman should clarify that.

Mr. Burnett: I have done so in the Register of Members' Interests, which is open for all to see.

I have one or two points to make about land registration. I believe that a useful step to save time, confusion and money would be for the Land Registry, on a first registration, to give notice to that effect to owners of adjoining properties so that boundaries could be agreed on at an early stage. In addition, notice of the extent of rights of way purportedly benefiting or passing over the land subject to the first registration could also be ascertained and agreed. I am talking about first registration where adjoining property is not registered.

I have received many complaints and queries from individuals who own unregistered land and who have boundaries encroaching on their land on first registration. That has often led to considerable litigation and costs. I should have thought that my proposal was a sensible step that would prevent that problem and lessen the proposed new independent adjudicator's work. I should also like to know about the verification of title in unregistered conveyancing because most unregistered property involved in a transaction is not registered during that process.

Who or what organisations can give certification on copy documents of title to the effect that such a document is a true copy? Not only copy documents, but the stamps on them need to be verified. I should like to know the names of the professional organisations that are authorised to issue these certificates. Does the Land Registry accept certification from individuals who undertake their own conveyancing?

I welcome the proposal for an independent adjudicator to decide disputes under the Bill. I look forward to hearing from the Minister on the details of the qualifications of the person who is to be appointed adjudicator. To whom would such an individual be responsible and who will appoint them? Will he confirm that the independent adjudicator will not oust the jurisdiction of the courts? I am sure that all parties will continue to have the right to take matters to court.

I appreciate that the independent adjudication proposal is in its embryonic stages, but it would be helpful to know the Minister's thoughts on the costs of using the adjudicator. Will the adjudicator have the right to award costs against unsuccessful parties? Does he envisage that the adjudicator will have both written and oral hearings?

I should also be glad if the Minister were to flesh out further the indemnity principle with regard to the Land Registry. If a person with absolute title has their title defeated, it is incumbent on the Land Registry to make reparation. If a person suffers loss because of a mistake on the register, they are entitled to be indemnified for that loss. After the Minister has given us further details on the extent of that indemnity, it would be worthwhile for him to put on record that the Government do not propose to change it.

Turning to the Land Registry, over recent years it has become more efficient, but sometimes the volume of work is such that there are delays. There should be a system of rebating fees where there is no reasonable excuse for those delays. I said at the beginning of the debate that my knowledge of this subject is out of date, and such a system may already be in place. If that is the case, is it discretionary or mandatory on the Land Registry to pay reparations or rebate fees where there is no reasonable excuse for its delays?

Will the Minister set out for the Committee the thinking behind the fees charged by the Land Registry? Do the fees that are charged and paid solely cover the cost of running the Land Registry? If there is a surplus, I suspect that it goes to the Treasury. It would be interesting to know the total fees charged on an annual basis during the past five years, and the extent to which those fees have exceeded the cost of running the Land Registry. I am aware that a quinquennial review of the Land Registry has recently been completed, and I am anxious to know whether he is satisfied that a five-year review period is adequate?

There is always debate about the standards and speed of the Land Registry. Examining that debate from the Land Registry's point of view, if its personnel discover constantly slapdash and shoddy work by conveyancers, do they report that to the appropriate professional body for the conveyancers in question?

The Bill proposes a tightening of the rules for overriding interests that bind a purchaser of land even though those interests are unregistered. The matter was referred to my hon. and learned Friend Lord Goodhart in the other place. He is a lawyer of great distinction, and it would be worthwhile for the Minister and his officials to note his comments not only on this point, but on the registration of leases and adverse possession. I agree with him that a reduction in the minimum period of registrable leases to below seven years is of questionable value. I also agree with his comments on adverse possession, and given that the new procedure in the Bill will not apply to unregistered land, I should be grateful for the Minister's comments.

The Bill also deals with Crown land. Where the Crown owns its land directly it has not been open for it to register that land. I am pleased that the Bill provides a procedure for the voluntary registration of Crown land, and I hope that the Minister will encourage the various Departments of State voluntarily to register. Where land has reverted to the Crown under the doctrine of bona vacantia, no one will know that that is the case until lengthy inquiries have been completed.

In the Minister's reply to my earlier intervention, he confirmed that it will become possible to access the register of charges by electronic means. When is that likely to occur?

The Law Society is concerned about the way in which documents are executed. These concerns revolve around the potential for fraud, the method of certification, the length of registrable leases and client confidentiality. These are all important matters to which I shall refer again in Committee, as will the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash).

I welcome the introduction of a framework for electronic conveyancing, although it should not be introduced on a mandatory basis at the whim of the Lord Chancellor. I am glad that by amendment in the other place that change must be approved by affirmative order of both Houses. The details of the system will be settled by rules that must necessarily be considered in due course, and I note that the Minister has confirmed that there will be wide consultation on that.

With the introduction of the steps that we discussed in the electronic conveyancing debate on 9 November 2000, and with the proposed changes for the Land Registry, the public should have a cheaper, swifter, more cost-effective and, I hope, more accurate system of transferring property.

10.24 am

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire): I have nothing to declare beyond the fact that my wife and I own our property, or we will when we have paid off the mortgage. Unfortunately, the Bradford and Bingley managed to destroy our deeds in a fire, and our property was not registered because it is old. However, a substitute registration has now taken place.

If I had intervened on the Minister, Mr. Hancock, you would rightly have limited my intervention because one cannot make a speech in such circumstances. However, in making a speech I have the advantage of being able to ask a number of questions, and that is my purpose on this occasion.

In the other place, the Earl of Caithness said:

    ``We have always been able to rely on the maps which are attached to leases and conveyances.''—[Official Report, House of Lords, 3 July 2001; Vol. 626, c. 782.]

The Earl of Caithness obviously has not seen my casework. The Minister has suggested that there are indeed certain problems. He said:

    ``The current law has undoubtedly given rise to a number of abuses and straightforward land theft . . . Even within the registered system, there is scope for reasonable doubt as to where boundaries lie.''

He proceeded to discuss new developments and the location of fences, and such difficulties do indeed arise. It is clear that the registration of boundary positions with the Land Registry is a matter of great significance.

The Bill provides for the supposedly much more precise method of electronic conveyancing. Will electronic conveyancing mean that problems such as those associated with boundaries and the registration of cross deeds—the Minister is aware of them—will be tackled properly and be less likely to arise? In certain cases, the question of who registered their deeds first may prove problematic. Indeed, one of my own cases concerns new property and a three-share drive, with the records for each property differing slightly. Such matters are covered by Land Registry provisions, and one assumes that advanced technology will enable the Land Registry to deal with them with greater precision. Technology will presumably alert the Land Registry automatically where a deed registration crosses with an earlier registration, and such cases will no longer slip through the net.

There is also the problem of development of new property on distinctive plots on registered estate land. The Minister mentioned the example of someone who receives rather more property than the boundaries entitle them to, and in such cases someone else inevitably receives rather less than they are entitled to. I know of many such cases, and the courts are likely to take the view that the person purchased what they had seen, ignoring the fact that only subsequently was it discovered that the boundary extended further than the fence. I hope that the new technology will help us to avoid such problems, that the involvement of the courts will become less necessary, and that the Land Registry will be able to produce substantial and important evidence.

Problems can arise with conveyancing solicitors when a case enters into boundary dispute and goes to court. Is it advisable for the conveyancing solicitor—the person with whom the client has been in touch—to be involved in briefing the barrister when it comes to appeal? It might be the case that the slip up in registration was made by the conveyancing solicitor. In most cases, such solicitors should be prevented from engaging in that type of activity.

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Prepared 29 November 2001