Bring to mind the Dickensian scene - an elderly law clerk bends forward at his desk paying careful regard to a pile of documents, invariably dusty. He reads by candlelight, over half- moon spectacles, the darkness of a winter evening drawing in. Before him the neatest of writing, ink in a cursive hand, records on browning parchment the details of his client's land ownership. The presence of a red wax seal confirms the import of these documents - the title deeds.
Fast forward to the mid 1980's. Compulsory registration of land at the Land Registry, in the event of sale, has already been in place for some time in various parts of the country and is now being introduced more widely. We're at the cutting edge with our Amstrad computers. New-fangled word processors are replacing type ribbon and carbon paper. The law lecturer comments that unregistered titles will be a thing of the past - it'll only be a matter of time.
Skip forward again to the present day. The quill pens and ink have gone, leather bound law reports are only kept for decoration and we are told that even e-mail will shortly be something of an anachronism. But there on the desk, beside copies of neat Land Registry title registers and up to date scaled plan for 1 the High Street, there sits a still dusty deed packet held together with red ribbon - the deeds for Home Farm. Despite the predictions, one seventh of land in the country has not made it to the Land Registry for first registration, much of it in rural areas. If the land is not sold or mortgaged the deeds retain their value, rarely seeing the light of day in the vaults of banks or solicitors offices, in lofts or damp basements, in the deepest recesses of kitchen dressers or rarely opened writing bureaux.
There we have it - two systems of property transfer still running side by side - registered and unregistered title. And so it can remain for the moment. But do unregistered title deeds have their drawbacks?
- The unregistered deeds are valuable. If the deeds are lost the process of trying to resurrect the title and have it registered at the Land Registry is costly, time consuming and sometimes difficult. The flood in the basement or the fire in the loft have an impact greater than the immediate. The retirement of the family solicitor and the closure of the bank means that the deeds are moved but to where? The records of deeds storage is often surprisingly ill kept.
- It's been many years since you needed to look for the deeds but where are they ? The solicitor doesn't have them. The banks denies it ever had them - you thought it did. You've been through the attic, the basement, the cupboards, the antique escritoire - nothing. A not uncommon scenario you are told!
- A buyer is found but the plans on the deeds are unclear, the inexperienced conveyancing operative in Sheffield or Newcastle is not used to unregistered title and insists upon it being registered first - the registration process is followed and the sale delayed by a few months.
- The neighbouring properties are being registered as the neighbours sell or mortgage. The stream at the bottom of the plantation is registered with the neighbour to the south. The same with the scrappy triangle of land to the neighbour on the north east. Not entirely clear on the plans but not as it should be. A voluntary registration of the title could have helped avoid the issues having to be looked at when the new neighbour queries why you are on their land.
Might it not be wise to ask the Land Registry to register the land anyway - a voluntary registration? The answer is usually yes. The Land Registry can see the value of as much land as possible being registered and cap their fee for voluntary registrations, irrespective of the value of the land, at less than £700. What the solicitor charges will depend upon the complexity of the deeds but it should be possible to confirm the cost of making the application in advance. So probably best to enquire as to the overall cost, consider the downsides of having an unregistered tile and decide whether you would wish to incur the expense.