Breaking new ground in land management

Some applaud it as the best thing since sliced bread. Others argue that there are teething problems before its potential is fully realized. The Electronic Filing System (EFS) launched by the B.C. Government’s Land Title Branch has drawn a wide range of reactions since it was launched in April.

The system – part of BC OnLine that provides access to a variety of provincial government computer systems over the Internet – offers lawyers and notaries in the province the option of electronically filing land title documents for registration instead of submitting paper documents in person.

More than 9,000 filings were submitted electronically from across the province within the first three months of the EFS launch. Customer convenience and the desire to improve staff efficiency were the two major drivers of this project, according to Darcy Hammett, director of programs, standards and policy with the B.C. Ministry of Sustainable Resource Development.

Hammett said the idea of an electronic filing system was first mooted in 1997-98. “We had a bunch of clerical staff nearing retirement, and needed time to hire and train new staff. We also needed new efficiencies that would free up existing clerical staff so we could train them in response to our longer range attrition forecasts.” According to Hammett, B.C. Land Title always sought to decentralize its services through automation. “We achieved this for information retrieval – title searches, obtaining document copies and survey plan copies and so on – but not for document submission.” Because there are relatively few land title offices in B.C., he said, lawyers and notaries in remote areas, until recently, relied on courier services to file documents – a practice that can be both expensive and time-consuming. “Electronic filing solves that problem. It lowers our customers’ cost and risk and offers them the same service levels no matter where in the province they are located.”

Candice Sifert agrees with this assessment.

“E-filing has helped us reduce costs and enhance our service to clients,” said Sifert, a legal assistant with Bell Spagnuolo, a B.C. legal firm specializing in residential real estate law.

Sifert sees electronic filing as the antidote to expensive and time-consuming manual document submission. She said all 25 conveyancers in her office have been using EFS since its launch six months ago. “We use it for all our purchase, conveyancing and refinance deals.” E-filing, Sifert said, has dramatically improved the workflow at her office. She noted that the Land Title office opens at 9 a.m. and documents couriered there do not get registered until late morning. “With EFS we can submit registrations electronically as soon as we come into the office and get an instant confirmation. It saves us a huge amount of time and effort, as well as the cost of couriering documents to the Land Title office.”

Sifert said these are significant benefits for her company, which does a lot of business with overseas investors.

While acknowledging the advantages of e-filing, however, another user says there are challenges before it becomes more widespread. One issue, according to Carolynne Maguire, a Vancouver-based notary public, is the inability of current conveyancing applications to populate the electronic forms, which are in Adobe Acrobat format. For instance, Maguire says the conveyancing software used at her office automatically populates documents created in Word and WordPerfect with relevant information retrieved from the database (such as property address, client name, transaction type and so on). However, she says, the Acrobat forms cannot be populated in the same way.

She said employees at her office have to manually enter the information into the Acrobat forms. “Such duplication of effort drives everybody nuts.” The problem, she said, “is not with the forms, which are pretty good, or with Acrobat, which is a fabulous application. It’s just that conveyancing software vendors have yet to develop applications that automatically populate fields in Acrobat.” She said the issue also has a cost implication. “You have to factor in the amount of time it takes your staff to enter the data manually. It all adds up over the course of a month – and could offset some of the cost advantages of e-filing.”

Hammett, however, noted that there is a software application available through B.C. Online called E-Conveyancing that is capable of populating the Acrobat forms. “It’s been available since the EFS project was implemented.” Hammett said user feedback indicates it takes around 10 minutes to re-key data into the electronic forms. “By comparison, the over-all time savings are 40 minutes per file. When the new software packages are developed, these savings will just become greater.”

The pervasiveness of the Adobe Acrobat reader makes the .pdf format ideal for electronic filing projects, according to Mark James, a national account manager with Adobe Systems. He noted that there are more than 750 million Acrobat Readers deployed today on computers worldwide. “So agencies like BC Land Title can deliver a document to their constituents and not worry about the overhead of supporting client software needed for users to access that document. They have the assurance that almost every major desktop and PDA system would have the Acrobat Reader on it.”

According to Hammett, the popularity and pervasiveness of .pdf was a major reason why BC Land Title opted for Acrobat instead of building an in-house forms package. “We also saw developing in-house as a great risk. We would have to get into the distribution business – with online selling and upgrades. This just wasn’t appropriate for government.” He said Acrobat met another condition stipulated by the electronic filing committee set up for this project – that land title documents looked the same from the beginning to the end of the process. “This means they needed to look exactly the same on your PC as they would when you printed it. And the view on our systems – when it got submitted to our office – would also have to be identical.”

Hammett said the “real show stopper” was the fact that Acrobat enables digital signatures to be added not just to the forms, but to attachments as well. “This is a very useful feature as with certain forms – such as the Form C Charge – one may need to add a 100-page attachment.”

Designed, built and tested by MacDonald, Dettwiller and Associates Ltd., the new electronic filing system can handle up to one million transactions a year. According to Hammett, development costs were about $12 million. Forms that can be filed electronically currently include Freehold Transfer (Form A), Mortgage (Form B), Charge and Release (Form C), Change of Lien, Electronic Payment Authorization and Property Transfer Tax.

The EFS process itself is straightforward. Adobe Acrobat electronic form templates need to be downloaded from the Land Titles Web site. Once the form is completed and a paper copy executed, the lawyer or notary applies their digital signatures (based on a digital signing certificate acquired from the Law Society) to the electronic form, and can then submits it electronically to the Land Title Office through BC OnLine. Land title fees are automatically deducted from the user’s BC OnLine deposit account and property tax (if applicable) collected from a bank account via an electronic transfer. The system assigns a document number, date and time of receipt, and sends a notice to the lawyer/notary that includes this information.

According to Hammett, the popularity of EFS has been growing steadily. While in April 2.5 per cent of the total filings were done electronically, in August that number climbed to 5.92 per cent. “I am hoping by the end of our fiscal next March the number of e-filings will be in the range of 25-30 per cent,” he said.

Joaquim P. Menezes ([email protected]) is assistant editor of CIO Government Review.

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