The law in England and Wales specifies two different systems of land classification whereby the title to land is proved during the conveyancing process – ie. Evidence is presented to demonstrate legal rights to a piece of property. These are ‘registered’ and ‘unregistered’ and both have distinct characteristics and operations.
The registered system was created to reduce the risk of fraud and to simplify the conveyancing process as far as possible. It functions via the Government maintaining a full list, or ‘register’, of title to land. In order to transfer ownership of a piece of land, including when you are purchasing a new home, you must alert the Land Registry Office.
The registry office keeps information on the benefits enjoyed by the land (including for example rights of way), the covenants and other burdens that might adversely affect the land and its usage (eg. An old covenant that denies any building in a certain area from selling alcohol) and an Ordinance Survey map detailing the full extent of the land.
During conveyancing, the registered system means that purchasers can quickly check the official title details on the Land registry website and an official record exists of the exact boundaries, defusing any potential disputes.
The unregistered system, by contrast, is significantly older and less streamlined. In order to prove the title, the seller must establish that he/she has been in possession of the land in question for a long and uninterrupted length of time. To do this, the seller produces the ‘title deeds’ – commonly referred to simply as ‘deeds’ – recording how and when the property has changed hands in the past, all the way up to the current owner.
The deeds generally consist of a number of documents dealing with the ownership of the land at the time of transfer, as well as the conveyances which record the actual transfer of the land.
In order to be seen to have fully proven the title, the seller must produce title deeds demonstrating undisputed ownership dating back at least 15 years. This is on the basis that it is reasonable to assume that anyone with a claim to the land would have made themselves known at some point during this time.
Of course, the main drawback to this system is that every time the land changes hands, all of these documents must be obtained and analysed, meaning a substantial cost in solicitors’ fees and time wasted relative to the registered process.
Furthermore, deeds can be forged, leading to a possibility of crime that does not exist at any real level with the government protected registry system.
The Government plans to transfer all land to the registered system, but we understand that at present only around 70% is registered. This should continue to increase steadily, particularly with the Land Registration Act 2002 having come into full effect in 2008. The Act encourages voluntary registration and has increased the scope whereby compulsory registration applies. These include when freehold land is acquired under the Land Purchase Act and when land which is located in a compulsory registration area is sold or leased for a period in excess of 21 years.