The system of conveyancing by private deeds sprang from the operation of the Statute of Uses 1535, one of the effects of which was to enable land to be transferred by a mere bargain and sale. To secure publicity for such transactions a further act was passed in the same year requiring the enrolment of bargains and sales, either in the courts of record at Westminster or in the sessions of the several counties, but this came to be generally evaded by the device of a conveyance by lease and release as the statute did not extend to bargains for a term. Although local deeds registries were established during the seventeenth century in the district known as Bedford Level and during the early part of the eighteenth century in Middlesex and the several ridings of Yorkshire, the many attempts to establish a general register of conveyances proved unsuccessful. In an effort to find a remedy for the difficulties which frequently arose in proving title several bodies examined the problem during the nineteenth century, notably the Royal Commission on Real Property, which reported in 1829 and 1830, and the Royal Commission on Registration and Conveyancing which reported in 1850. In 1857 a further report was made by the Royal Commission on Registration of Title. This was adopted by Parliament and resulted in the establishment of HM Land Registry under the Land Registry Act 1862.
The intention of the Land Registry Act 1862 was to enable landowners to register the title to their property, thereby creating certainty in ownership and making dealings in land simple and economical. Practical difficulties in its operation led to the appointment in 1868 of a further Royal Commission to inquire into the workings of the act. Its report in 1870 resulted in the setting up of a new Land Registry under the Land Transfer Act 1875. The new body absorbed the registry set up in 1862 and instituted new procedures for the voluntary registration of properties not already registered under the earlier act. Although no further registrations were to be made under the 1862 act care was taken to preserve the rights of those landowners who had already registered under its provisions.
Compulsory registration of title on sale was introduced under the Land Transfer Act 1897 in certain parts of the country and has since been extended by orders in Council to further areas. Originally the power to initiate extensions of the compulsory registration system lay with the county councils but, following the fourth report of the Acquisition and Valuation Committee, issued in 1919, this power passed to the government. Under the Land Registration Act 1966 the voluntary first registration of land in non-compulsory areas was severely curtailed in order to facilitate an accelerated programme for the extension of the compulsory system to cover all the built-up areas of the country; under the same act the concurrence of the county councils to extension orders was no longer required.
The introduction of compulsory registration in 1897 was accompanied by the establishment of an insurance fund to indemnify persons suffering loss through acts of the Land Registry. Such claims proved few in number and following the report of the Dormant Funds Committee in 1932 the assets of the fund, except for £l00,000, were surrendered to the Treasury towards the redemption of the national debt under the Land Registration Act 1936. Under the Land Registration and Land Charges Act 1971 the insurance fund was wound up and any losses are now met from public funds.
Arising largely from the recommendations made in 1911 by the Royal Commission on the Land Transfer Acts, the acts of 1875 and 1897 were amended and amplified by the Land Registration Act 1925, under which the main features of the land registration system still operate today. Both freehold and leasehold land can be registered with absolute, good leasehold, possessory or qualified title, together with transfers, charges, leases or transmissions on death or bankruptcy.
Other registration work undertaken by the Land Registry included the registration of mortgages and securities in land taken by companies under the Mortgage Debenture Acts 1865 and 1870; memorials of improvement charges under the Improvement of Land Acts 1864 and 1899; land purchased for small holdings under various Small Holdings and Allotment Acts; and short term loans to farmers under the Agricultural Credits Act 1928. Arising from the Land Charges Act 1900 the Land Registry took over the maintenance of certain judgment registers formerly kept in the Central Office of the Supreme Court of Judicature. In 1972 the various enactments relating to registration of land charges and other instruments and matters affecting land were consolidated in the Land Charges Act 1972. Under this measure it was laid down that the Chief Land Registrar should continue to keep in the prescribed manner the following registers:-
- a register of land charges
- a register of pending actions
- a register of writs and orders affecting land
- a register of deeds of arrangement affecting land
- a register of annuities or rentcharges determinable on a life or on lives and created after 25 April 1855 and before 1 January 1926, save under a marriage settlement and with a proviso that no new entries were to be made in the register.
The open register provisions of the Land Registration Act 1988 came into force in 1990. As a result any person has the right to inspect any registered title and obtain information about it, the title plan or any document which is referred to on the register and is filed in the Registry.
The Land Registry became an executive agency in 1990.
The Land Registry is in the charge of a Chief Land Registrar appointed by and responsible to the Lord Chancellor. He and his land registrars are barristers or solicitors bearing responsibility for the work of the department which was formerly organised in a number of legal sections dealing with various aspects of registration. These legal branches were integrated into a single Registration of Title Department after the First World War.
A separate Map Department, later known as the Plans Branch, had been established in 1898 to undertake the preparation of maps for registration purposes. From 1930, however, this was confined mainly to mapping work within the registry while field survey work and preparation and printing of maps was carried out by the Ordnance Survey. In the 1960s registration and associated plan work was gradually transferred to the regions and by the end of the decade ten district land registries had been established, each headed by a land registrar.
The Plans Practice Division is based at Land Registry headquarters. It provides policy on the plans aspects of the Land Registry's work and develops and maintains the practices and procedures of the Plans Branches in the district land registries.
Apart from general land registration work there is a separate Land Charges and Agricultural Credit Department, based at Plymouth, formerly at Kidbrooke. There are also branches at headquarters dealing with establishment, accounts and management services work.