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Last Updated: Monday, 5 November 2007, 16:27 GMT
Land Registry axes online deeds
Computer keyboard
Online access to some documents is to be removed
The Land Registry is to remove online versions of scanned mortgage deeds and leases amid concerns that fraudsters have been accessing the documents.

The Land Register Online site, set up in 2005, will be changed from midnight on Monday to ensure the scanned documents are no longer available.

People who want access to the documents will instead have to apply in writing.

It follows fears over criminals using the site to get property ownership transferred into their names.

Those fears were first highlighted on BBC Radio 4's You and Yours radio programme.

The online Land Registry service, which covers England and Wales, was trialled in 2003 and came into use officially in 2005, aimed at making the home buying process quicker and more transparent.

'Comprehensive compensation'

Previously people wanting information it held had to write to the Land Registry or visit one of its offices.

It announced on Monday that, following a three-month review and concerns from some customers, "documents referred to on the register" like mortgage deeds and leases would no longer be available online.

Mike Westcott-Rudd, head of corporate legal services, said: "People can be confident that their property ownership is safeguarded by the state because if someone is a victim of fraud, we have a comprehensive compensation scheme in place to put things right.

Fraud is a very serious issue and Land Registry gives it the highest priority
Mike Westcott-Rudd

"However, fraud is a very serious issue and Land Registry gives it the highest priority.

"It is important to strike a balance between on the one hand making the system accessible, and simplifying the process of conveyancing, and on the other hand ensuring that appropriate safeguards are written into the system.

"While there is always a risk of fraud, we need to put this risk in context - of 870m fee income in 2005-06 and 2006-07, just under 12m was paid out in compensation for fraud or forgery claims."

Power of attorney

A spokeswoman added that not all of those cases would have involved the website and one had involved a single payout of 8m.

The former Conservative minister Peter Lilley has called an adjournment debate on the subject in the Commons on Wednesday and has been looking into the case after one of his constituents fell victim to a fraudster.

The MP for Hitchin and Harpenden said his constituent had rented out a property, and within days the tenant had used the website to download the deeds and get the owner's signature.

Every Englishman's castle may turn out to be someone else's, if they are not careful
Peter Lilley

He then used them to forge a power of attorney and transfer the ownership of the property into his name, before taking out a mortgage for 140,000 and disappearing, said Mr Lilley.

It was only when the new tenants moved in and the bailiffs came round to repossess the house that his constituent realised there was a problem.

"I put down questions about it and found there had been a couple of cases where the Land Registry had to pay out," he said.

"They paid out, over the last three years, 5m, 14m and 6m. The year they paid out 14m included a single transaction of 8m.

"Every Englishman's castle may turn out to be someone else's, if they are not careful."

He said the Land Registry had been reluctant to do anything about it, and he was glad they were taking it more seriously and tightening up online access.

"There may be some aspects to it which are valuable, I'm sure there are, but it's a question of getting the right balace between immediate access to information and making fraud possible," he added.

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