Need to Know: Land registration and the law

‘What did the Land Registry ever do for us?’, you might ask – or more simply perhaps, ‘the what?’ Respectively, ‘quite a lot’ and ‘read on’. It is just their bad fortune that the better they and the solicitor do their job, the less the landowning client will notice it. Indeed, if they do their job perfectly, they will prevent many problems even occurring in the first place. Whilst that is a great result for them, it is a tough call to win brownie points on – and even tougher for me to persuade clients to get their land registered voluntarily, on the promise of avoiding problems they are not even aware of, much like trying to prove a negative. Precisely for that reason, it is perhaps better to view timely registration as an estate management tool, rather than an end in itself. It is certainly a good first line of defence against ownership claims, boundary disputes and the like.

Historically, one’s title to land was proved by producing a pile of documents, showing the title passing from one person to the next and any additional interests or rights over the land were also recorded. This is why previously, when you mortgaged your property, the lender took your deeds, so that you could literally not do anything with the property, without their permission. Considering this an unnecessarily complicated way of proving ownership however, the idea of a central register of all of the land in the country was introduced in 1925. This meant that ownership of land and all the relevant information could instead be proved by reference to the register, rather than piles of documents (in truth those piles are still needed, but from a solicitor’s point of view, registered land is much simpler to deal with). Further, the title to properties listed on the register would be backed by a state guarantee. Following updated legislation in 2002, registration is now compulsory on most dealings; the aim being to register the remainder of the country as soon as possible.   

There are two main limbs to registration: first registrations of previously unregistered land and secondly, dealings with registered land. First registrations can either be voluntary i.e. you chose when to make the application, or compulsory.  As alluded to above, voluntary registration can be a very useful tool, especially for larger estates. It functions much like an audit of current property owned, the results of which are then crystallised on the register. Any problems, such as boundary disputes, queries over rights of access, or whatever, can be dealt with in one fell swoop and then recorded. Not only is this useful for your own purposes, but acts as an important deterrent to others, who may be considering experimenting with adverse possession or other naughtiness, on your land. Further, the Land Registry will give you up to a 25% discount on their fees for voluntary registrations, although you will be disappointed to hear that the legal profession has yet to follow suit. First registration of previously unregistered land becomes compulsory if (to name the most common triggers) the land is bought, sold, gifted, mortgaged or ownership is otherwise changed.  

The second limb of registration concerns dealings with land that is already registered. Notification to the Land Registry is required for all subsequent dealings with the land; the most common being sales, lettings, granting of rights and other changes of ownership (for example, on death). However, beware! If you do not notify the Registry within two months of such a dealing, the dealing is deemed legally ineffective and more pertinently, the Registry will block you dealing with the land until the matter is resolved.  

Two further bits of information and a rural anomaly; the Land Registry’s website is excellent and all the appropriate forms, fees and documents can be downloaded from there; also, if you are unsure whether land is registered or not (or simply wish to be nosey about who owns what), you can ask the Land Registry to carry out a Search of the Index Map (Form SIM) to tell you. The rural anomaly, is the fact that old-style 1986 Act agricultural tenancies do not show up on the land register, because they are technically a tenancy from year to year.   

Ultimately, land registration does not mean you can gaily set fire to your deeds, but used wisely, it reduces time spent (by which I mean, solicitors fees) ploughing through deeds and is a good ‘foot in the door’, for making sure that you have the advantage, if any disputes do arise. Not bad for a government agency, really …