In recent weeks the method by which solicitors operate within the legal profession has been completely transformed. The landscape to which we were accustomed has all but disappeared. Zoom has replaced boardroom meetings, our offices have become makeshift structures on kitchen tables and our colleagues have been temporarily substituted with highly energetic children. Whilst one could argue that the legal profession has not suffered as severely as the food or retail sectors, it certainly has not gone unscathed, particularly in relation to real estate.
As a result of COVID-19 restrictions, many property related transactions have been put on hold. The delay in completing matters may be due to construction sites being closed, the non-availability of directors/borrowers to sign documents, the inability to exchange and/or receive original documents, access to company seals, or a delay on the side of the lending institutions due to skeletal staff onsite. Despite the Law Society introducing certain measures to assist legal practitioners, in particular, the recent guidelines on the use of e-signatures, these efforts unfortunately have been insufficient to facilitate the completion of all conveyancing transactions while working from home. This period of increased restriction and lockdown imposed to curb the spread of COVID-19 has highlighted, now more than ever, the need for eConveyancing.
What is eConveyancing
eConveyancing is essentially the ‘electronification’ of the conveyancing process. The concept of eConveyancing was first introduced by the Law Society in 2005 and has recently become a key component in the government’s Construction 2020 strategy.
The aim of eConveyancing, as described by the Law Society, “is not to electronify the current paper bound, inefficient and cumbersome conveyancing process but rather to use the move to reform, re-engineer and redesign”. The introduction of eConveyancing would see the interaction between the key players of a conveyancing transaction, being the lenders, legal practitioners, the Property Registration Authority (the “PRA”) and, in more recent times, the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, being centralised within a secure digital platform known as a hub.
Within the hub, documents, data and information will be uploaded, viewed and exchanged among parties. The exchange will be in real time. Solicitors will be able to track loan applications, arrange for the release of funds and create and sign documents through this digital platform. This process would obviate the need for massive email chains, correspondence and reduce the requirement for wet ink signatures. The most significant aspect of eConveyancing is that it proposes to eliminate the gap between completion and registration. Once both solicitors are in a position to complete, all aspects of the completion will occur via the hub almost simultaneously which will include documents being lodged with the PRA for registration.
While the concept of eConveyancing attracted mass support when first mentioned in 2005, it is unclear when it will become the new norm for real estate practitioners. The Law Society is continuing its efforts to establish a model of eConveyancing that works for the Irish conveyancing system. This is reflected in changes in the conveyancing process brought about by the introduction of the Conditions of Sale 2019 Edition. Similarly the introduction of compulsory registration for the entire country since 2011 was a step in the right direction.
While eConveyancing may not be able to address all of the shortcomings of the conveyancing process, as highlighted by the COVID-19 restrictions, it could prove to be a significant tool in modernising the current process resulting in a substantial cut in transaction times.