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What the fires should teach us

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Editor: On Sunday, August 23, 2015, news came that buildings in the capital were on fire. A blazing inferno gutted three unoccupied government buildings: the old Treasury Building, the old Government Printery and the old Electoral Office. When the smoke cleared, it was found that decades of public records had been destroyed.{{more}}

There was some speculation that the Registry Department was also on fire, but that building appeared to have only suffered some water damage. The Registry Department in Kingstown is the storehouse for thousands of deeds, birth certificates, marriage certificates, and a myriad of other government documents. Indeed, the Registry is a vital hub in the nation’s capital.

This puts into focus a very pressing and urgent question that ought to be discussed across all sections of the Vincentian society: What has become of the efforts, commenced in 2008, to modernize the Land Registration system?

In July 2008, an 18-month consultancy was commissioned to assist the Government of St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) in designing a modern Land Registration system. Subsequent to that, a Land Policy Issues Paper was prepared in September 2013 by Mr Philmore Isaacs, national consultant, in which he noted that “the system of information storage at the lands registry and the deeds registry is manual, archaic, with many documents in poor condition as a result of limited space and poor system of storage and retrieval of documents.”

One of the primary objectives of a new Land Registration system is to simplify the conveyancing process, especially for the purchaser, by eliminating the need for the purchaser to make complex inspections and searches before purchase. This is assured by the registration of all titles to a central online register. The new system will have its fair share of glitches in the early years after its introduction, but nevertheless it is an urgent reform that needs to be expedited.

A similar system was introduced in the United Kingdom in October 2003. To make the system work, the British Government made it compulsory for all titles to property to be registered. Individuals or organizations who become landowners or owned interests in land were required to apply to the Land Registry prior to selling, leasing, mortgaging or otherwise transferring their interest in property. The system made room for giving notice to people who might have an interest before the property was registered. One of the most important features of the system was that once registration in the Land Register took place, it was a guarantee that all information in relation to the property was correct, and where an error or omission in the Register was discovered, the State would compensate any losses or damages suffered.

A new system in SVG is expected to operate in a similar manner to what has already been introduced in the United Kingdom. The fact is that we have had a system of paper records for far too long. Deeds are not held in a computerized format, as is the practice in many other countries, but are held in a paper format. There is no electronic database for checking for encumbrances, which means that another’s interest in property can go unnoticed. Weeks of complex inspections and searches of paper records of deeds are today being conducted. To further complicate the process, the Land Registry and the Land and Surveys Department are not unified in one system under one agency, but are separate agencies, with little or no linkages. Consequently, the Land Registry and the Land and Surveys Department use different identification numbers to search for properties. To access these records, one has to go in person to each agency and manually search through record books to ensure that a proper account of a property is given.

The Government should move swiftly towards a modern Land Registration system. Legal title to property need only to be investigated just once by the Land Registrar and then registered online, instead of the old system where the purchaser has to search through scores of record books to show good root of title. It is time for a modern system in which title to property cannot be destroyed by fire or damaged by water, since it is recorded online. If the Registry Department had caught fire, the massive impact this would have had on the nation is immeasurable. Several states in the OECS have already adopted the new system. We should too, because fireproof vaults alone will not suffice.

Meisha S Cruickshank
Barrister and Solicitor

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