The decision by the Land secretary to automate certain processes in the land transaction chain elicited an outcry from the legal fraternity.
The newly elected president of the Law Society of Kenya penned an article raising concerns about the decision. At the heart of the challenge was the role of lawyers in land transactions.
Through a process called conveyancing, lawyers facilitate the process of searches, preparing sale agreements and ensuring the sale and transfer of property from a buyer to a seller are undertaken.
The decision to automate several of these processes meant that the role traditionally played by lawyers may no longer be necessary.
Carrying out a search would now be possible to undertake online. The arguments by the legal fraternity are that the decision puts legal processes in the hands of laymen contrary to the land laws and the laws regulating legal practice in Kenya.
The Ministry of Lands argues that all it is doing is automating processes. Other arguments have been proffered that part of the high costs and irregularities associated with the land transfer processes is caused by lawyers and their exorbitant fees.
As a member of the legal profession, I believe there are a lot of times that the profession is criticised by the public unfairly. Many people don’t understand how the legal profession works, their role in society and the nature of their training.
As a consequence, they accuse lawyers of using many words, confusing the public and generally being insincere. These accusations fail to recognise that any time one is in trouble with the law, it is the lawyer he or she will go to to represent them.
Having said so, there is need to reflect on the role of lawyers in land transactions. It is not contestable that in the 21st century it is important that key processes be automated to enable the country leverage on technology.
Technology is not supposed to replace professional service provision. Instead it ensures that transactions are carried out efficiently.
It also should enhance transparency. To this end a blanket condemnation of the automation by the legal profession would be a celebration of inefficiency. There are several professionals whose basis for charging for services is saving clients the inconvenience of the manual process.
This is about helping people navigate the process of searches or transfer. Essentially one pays for avoiding or navigating the maze of inefficiency and sometimes fishy deals that come with lack of clarity and transparency in the process.
This cannot be the main role of a professional. Providing professional advice and service must be high-level advisory support to clients as opposed to routine manual tasks that do not involve legal skills. These services are still required in land transactions. Lawyers will have to innovate and focus on value addition to clients.
It is time the profession asked itself what the role of its members is going to be in the face of changing nature of practice. With the adoption of technology, the approach to conveyancing must change.
The arrival of Uber in the country can offer some useful lessons. When it started operating taxi services in Kenya, there was a lot of resistance from traditional service providers who saw Uber as a threat to their continued existence. They resisted.
However, Uber persisted and continues to operate. This has not, however, led to the death of traditional taxi services. However, it has resulted in greater innovation and more responsiveness.
The lesson for the legal profession is to adapt and innovate. It is important though that government does not assume that automation alone equals elimination of fraud in land transactions. Technology will increase efficiency but not necessarily result in integrity.
Human beings who are dishonest will still engage in such practices. Technology will aid and not prevent such dubious behaviour.
Consequently, reforms must focus on both efficiency and integrity. Even on the efficiency front, a friend of mine shared with me her experience in applying for government services through the e-citizen platform.
Having gone through the necessary process in record time, she still had to go to the institution’s service hall to take the printout and line up to obtain the required service. It took her two days to finally be served.
This was no different from the experience one used to go through before the introduction of technology in that sector. Automation had not resulted in faster service delivery to citizens.
It is important that the above does not get replicated in the land sector.