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Armchair land referencing #14

This time and next I am going to examine the two main institutional data providers used in land referencing. In this article I’ll consider the UK’s land registries. The main source of data received during the course of a land referencing process is HM Land Registry, the state registry for England and Wales. Through our work, land referencing companies (and our clients) are very significant customers of HM Land Registry. Let’s consider the history of land registration in the UK.

The advantages of registering title include having a standardized proof of ownership instead of relying on a paper trail of old manuscript deeds; having the information stored on and accessible via a centralized database; and having a state-backed guarantee of secure title. This system of land registration in England and Wales was introduced by the Land Registry Act 1862 which provided for the registration of freeholds and leaseholds. At first, registration was not compulsory, and once property was registered there was no compulsion to register any subsequent transactions. Thus, it was possible for the person registered as the owner of a property to cease to be the owner while remaining on the register. These serious flaws in the 1862 Act led to the Land Transfer Act 1875, which forms the basis of the system used today. However, the 1875 Act still didn’t make registration compulsory.

The first Land Registry for England & Wales offices were opened in 1852 at 34 Lincoln's Inn Fields, London, just around the corner from WSP’s Chancery Lane office, and housed a grand total of just six staff. New purpose-built offices were opened on that site in 1913 and stand today. In 1925 the beginnings of compulsory registration commenced and it was forecast this would be completed by 1955. In fact this wasn’t achieved until 1990 and even then it took until 1998 for changes of ownership upon death or gifted land to be registered or for mortgages to be compulsorily registered. The delay was in part due to the Secord World War and in part due to the massive increase in the numbers of properties that required registration. To deal with the increased workload regional offices were opened and there are now 14 offices throughout the country. In 1950 (88 years after its creation) HM Land Registry registered its one millionth title. Just 13 years later it registered its two millionth title. Today the Land Registry of England & Wales has become one of the largest such records in Europe, now safeguarding property ownership to a value of about £7 trillion with more than 25 million titles that extend to nine tenths of the land mass of England and Wales.

Scotland’s land registry system is more established. Introduced in 1617 it is one of the world’s oldest and replaced a feudal system of land tenure that, since at least 1248, had involved a ‘sasine’ ceremony of publicly handing over of soil or other symbols to demonstrate the transfer of ownership of land from one person to another. This ancient necessity was only abandoned in 1868. The creation of the Register of Sasines stipulated that instead a written instrument of sasine (derived from the French ‘to seize’) was required to create landed rights. As most countries didn’t adopt land registries until the 19th century, Scotland’s system was the world’s most advanced for a few hundred years. However, it still wasn’t map-based until the creation of the Land Register of Scotland in 1979 and the commencement of transfers to the new register.

28 November 2004 saw sweeping reforms with the powers of the Abolition of Feudal Tenure (Scotland) Act 2000 introduced, ending the historic feudal nature of the Register of Sasines and removing a theoretical land referencing headache that, if taken to its logical conclusion, would see His Majesty the King recorded as the ultimately feudal overlord in every land parcel together with all the intermediate feudal interests between the Crown and the actual occupying owner. However, it wasn’t until the Land Registration (Scotland) Act 2012 that land registration was consolidated into the modern, map-based register we use today.

Northern Ireland is slightly different again but has a system very similar in form and function to the other UK registries. It is operated by Land and Property Services, an executive agency within the Department of Finance for Northern Ireland and was established in 1892 and maintains a record of map-based land registrations in Northern Ireland. It also guarantees the validity of the legal title, with each title having its own unique number known as the Folio Number.

Land referencers work with all the UK registries but most land registries’ customers are conveyancing lawyers or lenders. A busy conveyancing practice might order and process 50 titles in a month. Occasionally a land referencing company might process thousands at a time.

Next time we’ll consider another institutional data provider, Ordnance Survey.


This article is written by Ashley Parry Jones, Director – Planning, WSP. The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of WSP or SoLR or its members. The information provided does not and is not intended to constitute legal advice and instead is offered for general purposes only. It does not constitute the most up to date legal information. Any links and references provided are for the readers’ convenience only and do not constitute a recommendation of those sources.

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