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Government Is Urged To 'Revolutionise' Land Industry

By NEIL HARTNELL

Tribune Business Editor

nhartnell@tribunemedia.net

The Government was yesterday urged to “revolutionise” the Bahamian real estate industry by passing a three-pronged legislative package to create a Land Registry, an attorney telling Tribune Business the potential reforms “could be an engine for economic growth”.

Sharlyn Smith, an attorney with Sharon Wilson & Company, said the three Bills - the Land Adjudication Bill, the Registered Land Bill and the Law of Property Bill - would give commercial and residential real estate buyers greater certainty that they had good title to their properties.

The Bills were developed under the former Ingraham administration, but were sent back to the Law Reform Committee and other government agencies for further review, and to account for feedback and consultation provided.

Nothing has been heard of them since, but the Christie government committed in its 2012 election manifesto to moving towards a Land Registry system in the Bahamas, describing this as “a must”.

Expressing hope that the Government would not “take significant steps” to move the legislation forward, Ms Smith told Tribune Business that moving to a proper Land Registry - and registration system - would remove the need for attorneys to conduct expensive, time consuming title searches that were sometimes prone to error.

“The entire package was all designed to facilitate land registration and, done properly, a Land Registry would revolutionise the way land is dealt with in this country,” she said.

“I think it would provide greater assurance to persons purchasing property that they are, in fact, getting what they bargained for.... Land registration is something I think is critical. You have land all over the country that is not being developed due to title issues.”

Creating a Bahamas Land Registry, which is what the Registered Land Bill seeks to do, would move the Bahamian real estate and conveyancing market away from one based on “first to record” the title deeds.

A Land Registry would contain all information relating to a specific parcel of land in one database, including its location, dimensions, ownership interests and all encumbrances, such as mortgages and other liens/charges.

This, in turn, would boost efficiency and reduce issues associated with title problems.

Noting that the current system was creating economic problems, due to valuable land being tied up by title disputes, and a negative psychological impact on people who discovered the land they owned may have bad title, Ms Smith moving the Bahamas to a registered land system was past due.

“I really think we’re at a point where it’s critical we have a look at this area, and a Land Registry is key,” she told Tribune Business.

“We looked at it in the 1960s and it didn’t happen then. Other jurisdictions have proceeded with it, and in the meantime we’re almost playing catch up. We have to deal with this issue. It’s a growing one, and it’s causing uncertainty.

“I really hope the Government moves forward with it, and takes a significant step to move to Registered Land. The time has come and gone, but better late than never. Instead of being tied up in court, putting land in the hands of realtors to be sold could make a big difference.”

Under the current system, anyone can record title deeds for a piece of land with the Registry of Records and say they own it.

“Sometimes by unscrupulous persons, and sometimes by mistake, our system can be manipulated to give rise to not a good outcome,” Ms Smith said.

“With a Land Registry, there’s a greater level of certainty for persons purchasing property that their title is good.. It also makes it harder for the same piece of land to be conveyed two, three times using a different description.”

The Land Adjudication Bill was an attempt to reform and do away with the concept of generation land, aiming to grant title over one acre to persons who can show they have been in uninterrupted possession of that real estate parcel for 12 years or more.

Persons in that situation will receive a Certificate of Title to that one acre, or possibly 1.5 acres in certain circumstances. Generation and commonage land are frequently found in the Family Islands, and Ms Smith said it could help development in those areas.

“It could be an engine for economic growth, especially in the Family Islands,” she told Tribune Business.

But concerns were previously raised over the Land Adjudication Bill, particularly that land in excess of that size would go to the Government when generation land was regularised.

And fears were also raised about the accuracy of the Land Registry, given that the Government initially contemplated establishing it before all land was adjudicated - meaning all interests on a parcel would not be assessed before it was recorded.

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