Friday 27 March 2009

Proof of identity

When acting for clients on transactions (eg: house purchases or sales), solicitors are obliged to check their clients' identities. It is not an integral part of the legal work we set out to do, but an obligation imposed on us under anti-money laundering legislation. It is an extra cost that we must absorb, and an extra risk we must accept, but we are not given any option. Failing to comply will result in us being sent to prison, it is treated that seriously.

The Land Registry has recently tightened up its own requirements. When applying to register a land transaction, we must either confirm that we are satisfied as to the identities of all the various parties (whether they are our clients or not) unless represented by another conveyancer, or we must tell the Land Registry we have not checked the identity of (say) an unrepresented seller; the Land Registry will then require that person to provide proof of identity before registering the transaction. As that is no good at all if our client has already paid for the land, this effectively means that we need to check the identity of non-represented parties as well, in order to protect our clients' interests.

Today, we had a call from someone who did not want us to act in his particular transaction (buying a piece of farmland to extend his garden - which raises planning issues of its own), but wanted us to verify his identity, to satisfy the Land Registry requirements. We said, "No" - we are not in the business of verifying people's identities; we are not trained to spot a fake passport; the fee we would want to charge to cover the time and opportunity cost involved, let alone the risk, would be unacceptably high; it would be a high-risk, lose-lose situation.

We suggested he went to the local Land Registry to verify his identity, but apparently not all Land Registries are set up to carry out the verification that they themselves require - yet they had glibly told the enquirer to "go to any solicitor with your passport - it is only a case of filling in a form" - bloody cheek!

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