Legal Aspects Buying Property in T&T
Land Title Systems
There are two (2) systems of law under which land is held in Trinidad & Tobago:
- The old law or common law system of conveyancing; and
- the Torrens system of registered conveyancing or the Real Property Act Chapter 56:02 (R.P.A.) system of conveyancing.
Old Law System
Most of the land in Trinidad & Tobago is still held under the old law system which is based on the English common law as modified from time to time by statute demonstrated by, for example, the Conveyancing and Law of Property Act Chapter 56:01.
This is the system of registration of deeds relating to the transfer of land. The original deeds are lodged at the Deeds Registry of the Registrar General’s Department. Searches are conducted at the Registrar General’s Department to trace the Vendor’s title or determine how the Vendor acquired ownership of the land or property being sold.
The Purchaser’s Attorney or his Search Clerk prepares an ‘Abstract of Title’ which consists of:
- a list of documents;
- events setting out the history of ownership of the property; and
- all dealings with the property over a period of at least twenty (20) years.
The first document contained in the Abstract is called the Root of Title. Thereafter, in order for good title to be constituted there must be, in chronological order, a chain of title that continues from the root to the Vendor, free from all encumbrances and without any breaks in the chain of title.
Title to property may be either freehold or leasehold. If the property is leasehold, the term of years can vary from 25 years and up to 999 years.
The R.P.A. system is based on the Torrens System (after Sir Robert Torrens who invented it) which is used in Australia, New Zealand and several other countries which have adopted it. In Trinidad & Tobago, the R.P.A. system exists alongside the old law system, and it is not uncommon to find one property consisting of lands held under both systems.
All dealings with land or property under the R.P.A. system are endorsed on a document called a Certificate of Title, the original of which is kept in the R.P.A. Registry of the Registrar General’s Department, and the duplicate of which may be withdrawn from the Registry and held by the owner of the property or by anyone else (e.g. a bank) who may have an interest in it.
Under the R.P.A. system, once a person’s interest in property has been endorsed on the Certificate of Title, that interest is said to be indefeasible, that is, it is backed by a Land Assurance Fund against which any person who has been fraudulently deprived of his interest in land can claim compensation and to the extent of any shortfall in the Fund. The claim is guaranteed by the Government of Trinidad & Tobago as a charge on the Consolidated Fund.
Proposed New Registered System
The Government has recently passed three pieces of legislation which it proposes to bring into force in the future and which will revolutionise the system of registration of land in Trinidad and Tobago. These are:
- the Land Adjudication Act, 2000;
- the Registration of Titles to Land Act 2000; and
- the Land Tribunal Act 2000.
Land Adjudication Act 2000
The Land Adjudication Act 2000 will regulate all first registrations of land, and the adjudication process will be compulsory and final. This process will begin by the Minister designating and declaring an adjudication area. Tobago may be identified as the first area. After a particular area has been adjudicated, any person who may have a right to land will be invited to come forward and make claims to establish these legal rights and/or interests. It is the intention that over the course of a ten (10) year period, every parcel of land in Trinidad & Tobago will be adjudicated. Upon adjudication, a unique identification number will be assigned to each record delineated on a parcel identification map.
Registration of Titles to Land Act 2000
The Registration of Titles to Land Act 2000 will create a new land register which is intended to replace, during the course of the ten (10) year period, all deeds, leases and certificates under the existing laws. A fundamental principle of the new register is that it will record ownership of land or entitlement to rights and interests in land as a fact as opposed to evidence that must be deduced from a chain of documents. The advantages of the new land registry are that dealings will be less costly for persons and efficiency with transfers would improve.
Land Tribunal Act 2000
The Land Tribunal Act 2000 will create a new court for real property matters. However, initially, its function will primarily be to only hear appeals to decisions of the Adjudication Officer and the Land Registrar. The forum is intended to be a less formal setting and less expensive. The Tribunal will be presided over by a qualified Attorney at Law and assisted by various land professionals and appeals against decisions of the Land Tribunal will be made to the Court of Appeal.
The Government anticipates that the new system of registration will be more efficient for the documentation and enforcement of real property rights in Trinidad and Tobago. However, there is so much to be done by the Government from an administrative and legislative point of view prior to bringing this legislation into force, that it is not expected this will be done in the near future.