Mapping out ownership

29 Jan 2004

Although founded in the 19th century, the Land Registry continues on its path to becoming a 21st century government agency. The registry’s job is to operate a title registration system that is effectively a database of who owns what land in the State. Unsurprisingly, more than 100 years of operation has left it with a legacy system to beat all legacy systems. It holds in the region of two million folios or files, each of which stores the details of each piece of property in the State.

Every transaction involving a property is recorded in its portfolio and solicitors and surveyors, acting on behalf of clients, regularly call upon the services of the registry, requesting inspections of document or certified copies. The fact that it has functioned for this length of time is a tribute to the men and women who have worked there.

Not content that the system merely worked, in 1999 the Land Registry launched ITRIS — the Integrated Title Registration Information System that covered Dublin and five counties from the west of the country. This involved digitising 290,000 folios. Following the success of this pilot, the registry embarked on a process of digitising every folio in its possession. This got under way in April 2002 and as of writing, is almost complete with only 10 or so counties left to do. According to Michael Treacy, corporate services manager at the Land Registry, the process will be completed in August of next year. During 2003, registry customers have experienced considerable increases in the level of service.

“As many as 2,000 to 3,000 folios were required each day for consultation,” explains Treacy, recalling the old paper-based system. “Someone had to go fetch each folio, lodge a receipt card (similar a lending library) and bring the folio up to the member of the public. When the member of the public was finished, the process was reversed.”

And that was just for callers. According to Treacy, if a rural solicitor wanted a certified copy of a folio, it might take seven to 10 working days for the officer in the registry to get the request.

That officer would then kick off the process, entering data into a ledger, sending the solicitor’s cheque into the internal process, applying for the folio, sending it for copying, getting it back from copying, checking the copy was correct, certifying it and finally, posting it out. And since a folio might be out for some other purposes, the process could take weeks.

Now, however, a solicitor wanting to view a folio that has been digitised can simply sign up for the registry’s Electronic Access Service (EAS) and view the folio on their computer screen in the comfort of their own office. And if they want a certified copy, it is printed out on a bank of dedicated colour printers and posted within 24 hours. “Any number of people can view a folio at any time. They are never missing,” says Treacy.

Subscribers to the EAS pay in advance into a suspense account. According to Treacy, most customers are business people and they might lodge up to several thousand euro per week into such an account. Each time they make a request or order a copy, the money is deducted from their account. When the Government’s public service broker is available, however, payments will be made through that.

In addition, the registry also recently introduced a new information system for solicitors. As Treacy explains, in the past all transactions with the registry (eg registering of title) had to be accompanied by Form 17. This form was put online this year.

“The system is designed to eliminate historical mistakes that people made,” explains Treacy. “The system will not progress to the next screen, for instance, unless fields have been filled in correctly. This has improved the quality of information coming in to us.” The online scheme also helps solicitors. For instance, keying in a folio number will automatically display the current owner so the user will know they have the right folio. If, say, a certificate is to be issued, the fee will be calculated automatically. In the case of documents that need to be filed, the solicitor then prints out the completed form, attaches it to the documents and sends it to the registry.

There are plans to enable e-filing of documents but this involves other actors developing new systems and are beyond the control of the registry. “The biggest advantage is that the system gives the solicitor a dealing reference number and there is an online tracking system where they can enter that number to check the status of the transaction, free of charge,” he says.

Plans for the future include adding intelligence to the maps that are scanned in. Treacy explains that the scanned maps are merely images. Additional data, such as keywords and grid references, need to be keyed in manually. However, this will only be done on an “as needed” basis for the foreseeable future. Eventually, however, the entire database will be processed in this fashion.

The registry is also looking at digital mapping where instead of submitting a drawing, people will be able to submit electronic information.

By David Stewart