How relevant is ‘old-fashioned’ land law today?


Many people have an image of lawyers that comes straight out of the Victorian stereotype. They imagine clever, dusty men sitting in ancient oak-panelled offices, peppering their speech with Latin phrases as they move in a world of complex trusts, fiduciaries, testatrixes, codicils, deeds and covenants.

Luckily, this image is no longer the truth of the matter. The law has long since been reformed and although occasionally strange, it is not nearly as impenetrable as it once was.

An exception, however, is the area known as ‘traditional chancery’. This is the law concerning land, property and equity. This is the most ancient area of English law and also one of the most relevant today.

Consequently, it is notoriously hard to reform and is often the closest a modern person will get to the old-fashioned idea of legal practice.

Ancient deeds

In the past the law was even more paper-based than it is today. The original physical documents were of supreme importance.

It can seem strange in today’s centralised society that something as important as land ownership could be governed by something as flimsy as unique physical documents that could be lost or destroyed, but for centuries this was the way it was done.

For this reason deeds were, until relatively, recently written on durable velum or parchment that could last for centuries. You may have seen these deeds yourself - older buildings often have their original title deeds framed on a wall and they can be quite beautiful. They’re often covered in neat copper-plate handwriting and finished with a great wax seal.

Unregistered land

Although they are less relevant today, these ancient deeds can still have legal force. Occasionally I encounter a client who wants to buy or sell a property that does not appear on the Land Register.

This is unusual, but there are still a few unregistered properties that exist; often because they have not changed hands for many decades or even centuries. In these cases, part of the solicitor’s task is to ascertain the ownership of the property.

Rather than simply checking the Land Registry, this must be done through the construction of an unbroken chain of title deeds going back at least fifteen years. If the last time the property was conveyed was in the nineteenth century, the original deeds may have to be found!

If they are lost then it may become complex to rectify, as there is no other way of proving who owns it now. Visit our page on conveyancing to learn more about the subject, or learn about property law more generally.

Good conveyancing firms still train their solicitors in how to deal with unregistered property and Contact Law is able to recommend specialist firms in these circumstances. If you require a conveyancing solicitor, contact us on 0800 1777 162 or fill in the web-form on the right-hand side.

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