HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) is banning the use of bar-coded computer generated paper SDLT returns forms with effect from 1st November this year. This is an odd decision – not least because requiring law firms to upgrade to a new platform in the middle of the worst conveyancing slump in 15 years does not seem a very smart move (there again the word 'smart' is not one frequently encountered in close proximity to any government IT project) – and it is not a total banner on the use of all paper forms. Hand written (ie virtually zero technology) returns will still be allowed, it is just the bar-coded ones that are out.
The immediate losers are Oyez and the IRIS Group's Laserforms business as they have been the biggest purveyors of bar-coded forms over the past couple of years – although these were only introduced as a stop-gap to help out HMRC because its own IT approach was in such dissarray. And, the organisation clearly hoping to gain the most from it is – HMRC which now has its own online SDLT returns. So, is there no stopping the HMRC juggernaut as it tries to railroad itself onto lawyers' desktops?
Well actually there is, because not only are there a growing number of alternative online SDLT returns services commercially available out there but also the HMRC offering has its drawbacks. The first is that the HMRC service cannot offer any integration with conveyancing case management software, so that limits its market to smaller firms. The second problem is that to use the HMRC system, you need to have a government Gateway ID – but obtaining one can frequently prove to be a administrative hassle. And, thirdly, there is the issue of training users to access the HMRC service.
What the commercial providers typically do is handle the Gateway ID issue for their users and provide training by people who understand the problems of solicitors – whereas the HMRC training has been described as 'little more than a chicken in an HMRC call centre factory reading from a script'.
We asked one of the market leaders among the commercial online SDLT service providers what they thought of the HMRC initiative and they said “Bring it on… by flushing out all the bar-code users, it will create a fresh impetus in the market for them to look at us – and we will attract those users already used familiar with case management, some level of IT systems integration and the whole concept of electronic joined up thinking”.
• New info: HMRC is hosting an exhibition next week (Thursday 5th June) at Euston Tower(286 Euston Road, London) to promote its new online filing DVD – the event opens for business at 10:00am. As well as providing an insight into the latest HMRC approach to online SDLT filing, there will also be a small exhibition showing products from the main commercial players in the SDLT and e-conveyancing market including DPS Software, Easy Convey, Eclipse Legal Systems, Landscape and SDLT.co.uk.