The topic on everyone’s lips, artificial intelligence (“AI”), has made it into the news again this week, this time in relation to its possible application in conveyancing work.

In a January 2023 experiment, ChatGPT (an AI text generator tool or “chatbot”) scored a respectable 50% in SQE1, the first part of the new Solicitors Qualifying Examination in England and Wales which, whilst not a pass, ranked it alongside students who had received a third class or 2:2 degree at undergraduate level! Furthermore, the experiment found that the bot had the ability to learn and improve, answering correctly on the second attempt at the same question, suggesting that chatbots have the potential to be a formidable tool once they are further evolved.

An East Midlands firm has now tested a series of first-time-buyer queries on ChatGPT, to see whether it could reduce the workload of solicitors by dealing with basic queries. They found that, whilst straightforward questions were well-answered, the bot fell down on Stamp Duty Land Tax, giving advice which was “incomplete, out of date and lacked explanation on the specifics” despite appearing to be very detailed and elaborate. This perhaps highlights the greatest concern with AI: that the general public may be tempted to rely on the seemingly-sophisticated advice of a free chatbot, rather than incur the expense of a solicitor, but risk receiving inaccurate information which could cost them more in the long run.

We carried out our own test, asking ChatGPT “If I already own freehold and leasehold titles in the same property, can I merge them?” to which the bot replied “it may be possible to merge them through a process known as “surrender and regrant”… you will need to ensure that the terms of the new lease are acceptable and that the surrender and regrant process is completed correctly in order to ensure that the lease remains valid.” This answer is inaccurate, not least because merging titles involves closing the leasehold title rather than granting a new lease! It also omits to address the practical steps required to merge titles at HM Land Registry, or to explain that titles within the same ownership will not automatically merge but can be merged where there is a specific intention to do so. Further, the advice fails to mention that it is not always advisable to merge titles and it is important to carefully look at any rights and reservations on the leasehold title or within the lease which might be lost on merger.

We were interested to note that in all the legal questions we posed to ChatGPT, the reply ended with a warning that the user should seek professional advice from a solicitor.

Of course, the application of AI in the conveyancing sector remains limited for now, in any event, as transactions where money changes hands will require solicitors to act on each side, to enable funds to pass through client account. There are however other issues too; for example, it is difficult to see how title defects could be sufficiently remedied by AI without excessive reliance on indemnity insurance – a model which is common in other jurisdictions but which the English conveyancing system has elected not to adopt, preferring to try and fix defects in title where possible. Insurance-based systems are generally regarded as higher risk, not least because the strength of an insurance policy is only as good as the company providing it, for as long as they are in operation.

The above being said, AI does have a valuable part to play in modern conveyancing practices. At Charles Russell Speechlys, we already use software which, for example, can search vast volumes of documents for key information or to identify trends, cutting down on time spent carrying out search tasks. We also use document-creation programs to speed up drafting work and compliance software to streamline client due diligence processes. These intelligent tools allow solicitors to optimise efficiency and ultimately dedicate valuable time to legal work, improving the overall quality of client service.

As AI and chatbots continue to evolve, some may view the advancements as disruptive or a threat to the legal sector, however, at Charles Russell Speechlys we embrace these programs and believe they should complement rather than replace traditional services. Further, the value of an empathetic trusted advisor and the “human experience” cannot be underestimated, particularly in conveyancing transactions which are ranked as one of the most stressful life events most people will go through.