Friday, April 1, 2011

Time to Expedite the Land Title Registry

For some decades now, successive Bermuda governments have articulated the need for a land tile registry. The current government has made more progress than any previously but the process remains slow, with little tangible results after years of dealing with it. Having all property registered on this comparatively small land mass would provide a guarantee of title and allow for the buying and selling of property faster and more cheaply. Why no decisive step has been taken in this direction is not clearly discernable, but it needs to be taken; and it needs to be taken now.

A land title registry would simplify the land acquisition process. Currently, one has to engage a lawyer to do a title search to verify the seller of the property has clear title and that there are no encumbrances. Since the Bermuda Bar Council has decided to propose a recommended fee schedule for legal fees based on the value of the property (which lawyers all seem to have adopted), the legal cost for a $1,000,000 property will be in excess of $10,000. A land title registry should reduce these costs. It is not clear why the Bar Council has this recommended pricing structure when the norm is for lawyers to charge by the hour. The work certainly does not increase based on the price of the property.

One of the most compelling reasons for establishing a land title registry in Bermuda is that it will help bring closure to the numerous allegations of land fraud, allegations which have circulated for decades; and almost in a whisper just below the pale of public discourse.  Bermuda has a dirty history when land ownership was involved—and it didn’t end with Tucker’s Town. During the 1960s and 70s vulnerable Bermudians had their land stolen from them by the unscrupulous collusion between realtors and lawyers. Typically, the scheme would work as follows: a poorly educated person, alcoholic, or overly trusting soul would be identified. In some cases, the victim would actually sign documents dispersing the land, only for the family to find out much later and with little recourse. In other cases, the lawyer would simply draw up new deeds, with someone in the real estate company owning the property and then selling that property to happy and unsuspecting new homeowners. Later on the genuine owners and their descendants would hold the title deeds to property but have to contend with other ‘owners’. Many have simply given up since they have no means to engage a lawyer to pursue their claim. Others have pursued a process made convoluted by lawyers who have taken many tangents other than pursue the relevance of the title deeds.  In one case in the 1970s though, a rougher form of justice was pursued.  A realtor had a “for sale” sign on a piece of undeveloped land, which came as a complete surprise to the owner. When the owner visited the realtor’s office with a machete, the sign was quickly taken down.  Too many others, though, have had their land simply taken from their family while still holding the title deeds.

With the land title registry everyone’s claim to land would be a matter of showing who has clear title. There is no doubt that a number of people are today living on property where they are unable to show clear title. This is not their fault. It is the fault of the realtors who misappropriated the land and lawyers who fabricated “clear title”. Many families who are victims of this practice have yet to get justice and establishing the registry is a critical step along that path to justice.

During this period of budget cutbacks and a government hiring freeze now is not the time to call on government to commit public resources to the establishment of this land title registry. What government can do is create the mechanism for a self-financed agency tasked with compiling this registry, as is the practice in other countries. It is important Bermuda get this registry. It is important the victims get justice. And it is important government take leadership on this.

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