Campion, the UK land conveyancing practice is, to anyone who comes from a place with a halfway decent system, utterly and totally bizarre. It is not as a result of any particular law, but rather as a result of standard practices that are simply jaw droppingly dumbass.
When I first started living the UK some UK lawyer friends explained to me how their system worked and I just couldn’t believe my ears. At first I thought there must be some law that meant a sensible practice was not possible. Not so: when I explained how the Australian conveyancing practice worked, my UK lawyer friends blinked a lot, stammered, tried hard to avoid admitting that us bloody colonials could do something better than they, but in the end had to admit that there was nothing under UK law that would stop them using a more sensible system other than ancient wheel ruts eroded so deep by habit that no one could turn out of them.
There are a number of wacky aspects to the UK system but at the heart of it is this: in the dim and distant past there was a problem with the landed gentry being deprived of their land in (allegedly) fraudulent oral deals. As a consequnce, the Statute of Frauds was passed, by which dealings in land were null and void unless in writing under hand. We inherited the same statute here in Australia.
In standard UK conveyancing practice the vendor and purchaser reach full agreement on all important terms including price, then the usual due diligence and financial arrangements prudent and necessary when buying property are undertaken, and only then at a very late stage do the parties actually (in UK conveyancing parlance) “exchange contracts” (ie sign up in writing). At any time up to that point, either party can just pull out with impunity because of the Statute of Frauds.
If the vendor gets a better offer the purchaser gets “gazumped”, leaving them with no recourse despite having potentially invested large amounts of time, emotion and money on the strength of the vendor’s “agreement”.
So in other words a statute that was designed to avoid fraud is now used to allow deliberate and calculated wholesale reneging on oral agreements.
It’d be funny if it wasn’t so sad.