It might be a push to suggest that January has so far been ‘the month of conveyancing’ but in terms of the interest levelled at the sector, we would be hard-pressed to find another month when it has been so much in the ‘industry eye’.
This comes about for a number of reasons namely an analysis of what the conveyancing process involves, whether it is fit for purpose, but also around the ability of conveyancing firms to deliver a high-quality service to their clients, the role of the conveyancing firm in the next two-month period leading up to the April stamp duty increases, plus of course issues around specialisation, expertise and resources, not forgetting client expectation and satisfaction.
All these have come together at the start of the year to ensure the conveyancing sector, and all its practitioners, are under more scrutiny than at any other time. Now, you might expect me to say that our sector being under the microscope in such a way is rather unfair; however, on the contrary given the importance of conveyancing – let’s not forget whenever any housing transaction takes place conveyancing is required – my view is that it should have been assigned this level of importance all along.
The industry, as a whole, needs to confront some of the criticisms levelled at it, and it needs to work closely together in order to develop a 21st Century conveyancing industry; not one that (as practised by certain firms) appears to be a relic of a bygone age. We have been making the case for a very long time that not all conveyancing firms are the same and there are only a limited number of operators who can cope with the demands of today’s conveyancing process and ensure that all clients get what they want, when they want.
This of course is a question of capacity, resource and expertise – much as it’s ever been, certainly over the last few years. It’s interesting however how a stamp duty deadline, combined with a traditional Easter busy period, can thrust the conveyancing process to the top of the agenda.
Last year I reflected on the potential for ‘conveyancing mayhem’ because of the need for buy-to-let landlords and second-home purchasers to complete by end of play on 31 March this year, in order not to pay the three percentage point increase in stamp duty. This of course has been ‘nicely’ timed to coincide with that pre-Easter busy period when many homeowners want to complete in order to get into their new properties before the holiday.
As time has progressed, the focus on this first quarter of 2016 as one where conveyancers will come under severe pressure has grown, particularly from the buy-to-let sector. Just recently, Fleet Mortgages issued a warning to brokers to ensure their clients used specialist conveyancers in order to give their clients the best chance of completing on time – a point we have been making repeatedly over the last few years. Also, the conveyancing industry’s very own trade body, the Conveyancing Association, also highlighted this quarter as a very important one for the sector, and suggested that it may need to raise its game in order to cope with the busy period this will undoubtedly be.
To be fair to the Association, since it was established, it has done plenty in order to write the wrongs inherent within the process – developing its Protocol (which it recently updated) in order to focus on best practice and to try and rid conveyancing of some of the, quite frankly, unnecessary delays that blight it. It’s also working with lenders in a similar vein to try and cut down on the many requests that flow between them which again are just not needed. Plus it’s supported by the top conveyancing firms; those that carry out the bulk of the business and can hopefully make a sizeable investment in order to move things in the right direction.
However, and here’s the rub, the members of the Association are not the only conveyancing firms out there. Take a look at the regular data issued by the Land Registry and you will see thousands of firms each month working on conveyancing transactions – yes, the bigger firms are taking a bigger share but there are many smaller operations ill-equipped for today’s conveyancing process and the cause of many delays.
One can but hope that this renewed, and much-needed, scrutiny of the conveyancing sector will mean both advisers and their clients are more keenly aware of who they instruct and the job they carry out for them. With the Association as well, we can start to get a sector which has the capacity and the service levels to deliver across the board. It may take some time to get there but at least there are a group of firms and a body pulling in the right direction in order to reach that destination within a much quicker timescale.
Harpal Singh is managing director of BrokerConveyancing.co.uk