HC Deb 06 April 1881 vol 260 cc825-34

Order for Second Reading read.


in moving that the Bill be now read a second time, said, he did not conceive, considering the well-worn nature of the topic, that it was necessary for him to offer any lengthened remarks to the House in commending the Bill to its attention. The House probably was well aware that for more than a century and a-half a Land Registry had existed in Middlesex, and that the experiment was made at very nearly the same date in Yorkshire, first in one Riding and then in another. In recent times there had been inquiries into the Middlesex Registry; but, so far as he knew, they had led to no legislative Acts for the improvement of its procedure. That had gone on down to the present time; the old state of things, which was a rather cumbrous mode of registering the assurances or deeds in regard to laud, had continued without change. What might have been a useful mode of registration in the time of Queen Anne, when the Registry was established, must obviously be inadequate when they considered the enormous growth of population in the Metropolitan area, accompanied as that was by the distribution and the division of landed property of every kind in the shape of house property, garden property, and small plots of land of every description. What had happened had been this, and it had been long pointed out in regard to the Middlesex Registry. The system was that the purchasers of property—or anyone who took a mortgage on property—accepted the transfer of it, and for his own security should, and was by the statute of Anne, bound to register the fact and the deed in some form in the Registry. He did that, generally speaking, by a very full memorial, setting forth the names of the parties to the deed with some description of the property. That was all that was done; but if they considered the enormous sub-division of property that had taken place in Middlesex, especially through the operations of spirited building societies from time to time, they found that these purchases and these assignments were multiplied in extraordinary num- bers, and the sole index to them was the name of the purchaser. Anyone who had had to refer to the Middlesex Land Registry for a client, or for himself, knew that such a mode of registration became perfectly useless. There were such names as Smith and Jones multiplied enormously in London; and although there might be added the first name of George or John to Smith, yet as Smith was the guide in the Index, it was impossible to identify the property to ascertain whether it was or was not that which you were searching for. In the same way, with such enormous estates as those of the Duke of Westminster, the moment one knew that he must seek for information under the nominal appellation of the Duke for some key to an assignment of estate he gave it up as hopeless. It was the same with such names as Cubitt and others, who had covered the Metropolis with buildings, and sub-divided property to the enormous extent they saw. That being the state of things, the law in Middlesex saying that you should register an assignment made to you, and that if you did not someone else might get the advantage of you, acted very cruelly on the whole of those who had to resort to the Registry to ascertain what it was safe for them to buy, and how far, their own deeds being registered, were made evidence so strong that anyone would be prevented from dealing with such property with forged leases or transfers. There had been in the Metropolis a number of forgeries by skilled agents, enjoying sometimes professional knowledge, which they had turned to account by forged deeds in respect to the same property in such a way as to multiply mortgages and assignments upon them, each time acquiring a certain amount of purchase money or other consideration. That had been done by men whose names had been familiar to the House in past times. There was one case especially within the last few years in which an adventurer named Dimsdale succeeded in mortgaging some property at Penge, in Surrey, 22 times over, and on each occasion he obtained some valuable consideration for the mortgage or assignment. That occurred outside the area of the Middlesex Land Registry. It was in a part of Surrey adjacent to Middlesex, but which was not under the Middlesex Registry. He succeeded; and that he should have chosen, and that all the other forgers he (Mr. Hopwood) had alluded to should have chosen, a district outside the Middlesex Registry was, he thought, silent testimony of a very strong character that the Middlesex Registry was of considerable benefit to those who were accustomed to lay out what money they had in investments in land. There had been, no doubt, others who acted in the same way, who had not been discovered; and he thought it would be found that they had invariably chosen a limit of the Metropolis which was not within the bounds of the Middlesex Registry, and that their reason for that was that the Land Registry did constitute additional safeguard to the holders of property. That furnished one with two arguments—first, that the registration in Middlesex was so far valuable, and would be, as he conceived, much more valuable, if the Registry was of a practical character, so that it could be made use of as the Bill proposed; and, secondly, that the Bill should rightly be extended to the district which it named. The Bill proposed to extend the district for registration of assurances and deeds of assignments, so as to include not only Middlesex proper, to which the original Registry was limited, but the whole Metropolitan district included under the Metropolis Management Act. It also proposed to improve and amend the existing Register, by a provision that the index should not only be an index to names, but also to the districts in which the property was situated. The situation of the property should also be indicated by reference to the Ordnance Map, so that anyone wishing to ascertain whether a property had been already the subject of assignment or assurance to anybody else would be able at once to find it out. For a fixed fee, the applicant might receive a certificate of the state of the Register in regard to incumbrances on the property about which he was inquiring. Thus the Registrar would certify as to the last registered incumbrances on the property, and the applicant might proceed with confidence to make the investment, or might decline it. That was the state of the question as regarded the Registry. With regard to any alteration in the law, he thought the only point he need enter upon was this—and it was a matter upon which some argument might be presented—whether the fact of the entry of the deed or assurance and its ownership, being once entered, should be conclusive; or whether he, having the right in all other respects to enter the fact of the assignment to himself, having heard that there was an equitable mortgage in someone else's hands, he should be permitted—as the Bill proposed—to go to the Registry, and, getting his on the Registry first, take priority. He believed he was right in saying that a complete system of registration prevailed in Ireland and Scotland, and the Registry was held to be conclusive, and afforded all information to an intending purchaser as to the devolution of property. Then he came to the ways and means of the question. The state of the case was this. An Act having been passed instituting this Office as long ago as the reign of Queen Anne, a number of Registrars had been from time to time appointed. At one time the number was five; but when they came down to 1867 they found there were three, but in that year one of the number died. In 1872 another died; and between those years an arrangement was made by which the vacancies were not filled up, except by the Queen's Remembrancer, as Trustee for the Crown; and the Treasury succeeded to, or was invested with, the right to receive all the fees accruing from time to time. At present Lord Truro was the sole Registrar; the Crown, or the Treasury, or the nation was, in fact, the other Registrar, and between the two there was a considerable sum to be divided annually. In 1877 it appeared that the amount received by each was £4,835. The amounts received by the Registry had been increasing from 1867, when the receipts were £13,000, down to 1877, when they wore £14,000. The last Return showed about £15,000, the net receipts being somewhere about £10,000, and divided between the Crown and Registrar. The Office was at present a sinecure. There was a Registrar who was entitled to receive his share of the money, and was not bound to give any service in return. The Bill arranged for the future; it provided that the Registrar should be pensioned off with a sum calculated on the net amount received by him annually during the 10 years preceding, and it empowered and regulated the appointment of a new Registrar and officers under the guidance and the direction of the Lord Chancellor, by rules to be prescribed by him. He submitted that he had first shown that that Middlesex Registry, imperfect and complicated as it was, still afforded some protection to those who were bound to register there. That had been shown by the fact that the forgers, on a large scale, had found it more safe to extend the field of their operations to portions of the Metropolis outside the limits of the Act, and so avoiding that which was subject to the law. Having shown that there was that advantage in the Registry; finding that there were ample funds derived from it which were paid by those who had the benefit of it, and that, therefore, the institution, as he might call it, was self-supporting, he put it to the House whether it would not be useful to extend its limits to all portions of the Metropolis, and whether, if the principle of extension were once acceded to, it would not be wise to choose for the purpose the unit already instituted by previous legislation—the Metropolitan area? He next showed that the process was simple—that it was a mere question of a moderately good index. The answer might be made—quite independently of whether the Bill was sufficient or not—that that was part of a large subject. In reference to a Bill discussed the other day on another large subject connected with the Land Question—he meant the Agricultural Holdings Act Amendment Bill—the Government said that although they were pledged to deal with that subject, they would not be dogs in the manger to oppose an instalment of it, for they could see that the Bill could be made a useful Bill. So, in this case, he knew the Government had an immense variety of matters to attend to, and were not likely to be able to redeem their pledge to deal with the whole subject of land transfer; but why should they put anything like a veto upon the Bill, which, he submitted, was useful and practical, and, as long as it lasted, even if it were but a temporary measure, would be useful to the community, and would not in the least obstruct any larger idea of registering titles instead of assurances, or any other beneficial action the Government might think it right to take in regard to the transfer of land. That, he believed, was what might be in the mind of the Government; but he thought he had shown that those who dwelt in Middlesex, or made assignments or instalments in Middlesex, ought to be allowed to have this Registry improved; that it was by their very hardly extracted money that the office was kept going; and that a very considerable surplus now went annually to the Treasury. If they did not approve of the extension outside Middlesex, at least let them have so much of the Bill as provided for an improved index, and the right to obtain a search certificate, and all other working and administrative improvements suggested by the Bill. He trusted the Government would accede to the proposal, and allow them to have the sanction of the House to the Bill, so far as that might be said to be obtained by passing the second reading.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Mr. Hopwood.)


said, that the Bill, though extremely modest, was a very important one. He wished to know what the effect of the Registrar's search, as proposed by the Bill, would be, because it seemed at present that if the Registrar made any mistake in his certificate, there would be nothing to protect the purchaser from the consequences of that mistake. The Bill appeared to him defective in not providing for registration of titles, his impression being that there could be no good and workable system of registration unless it included both titles and instruments. He should not oppose the second reading; but he had great objection to extending its provisions without more consideration to the City of London, where land was sold not at so many pounds per acre, but at so many thousands of pounds per acre. In fact, it had become of such fabulous value that any attempt to deal with its transfer ought to be seriously considered. He thought the Bill defective, inasmuch as it only provided for the registration of documents. He also anticipated that it would entirely destroy equitable mortgages. It was desirable that money should be borrowed on land with simplicity; but the Bill would create great inconvenience in that respect. He looked forward to a great system of registration, and doubted the utility of dealing with a single case by a separate Bill, He could not help thinking that they were touching the fringe of a great subject, and that they would have to deal with it on a large scale. Other parts of the world had dealt with the subject of registration with great success. He did not know why we could not do the same. Registration in Middlesex had done some good; but if we were to have a real, complete, and proper system of registration the true principle would be to provide for the destruction of all documents which were not registered as affecting the title, so that no unregistered document should affect title; and he believed that if they once applied the system to the whole Kingdom it would be self-supporting, and would, at the same time, confer immense benefit upon the community. He should vote for the second reading of the Bill, although he objected to the idea of abolishing by a side wind all the power of equitable mortgage.


cordially agreed with the principle put forward by the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. W. Fowler), that no document which did not appear upon the Registry ought to have any value in regard to landed property; but no doubt, if that principle were carried out, it would have the effect of abolishing the power of equitable mortgage. That was a power which he would not be sorry to see done away with, for within his own experience he had known repeated instances of double transactions upon the same property. The doctrine of tacking was monstrous. Under it a third mortgagee, by acquiring the interest of the first mortgagee, could tack his third mortgage to the first mortgage, and squeeze out the second mortgagee. A proper registration would prevent that, because every deed would appear on the register; and that fact, he thought, would fully justify an attempt to have a register of deeds. We had registration in Yorkshire and in Scotland. As far as he knew, the frauds to which the hon. and learned Member for Stockport (Mr. Hopwood) alluded had not taken place in a register county. He knew few things that had given greater rise to fraud than the system of equitable mortgage. He asked whether it was right that a man should stand as the owner of a large property which he really did not own, and he ventured to think that equitable mortgages should not stand in the way of an efficient system of registration. Such a system would prevent fraud in connection with land. He admitted that he would greatly prefer a general system of land registration to a purely local one of this character; but he would point out that such a general system for the whole of the land could only be carried out by the Government and not by a private Member, and he accepted the measure as an instalment in the right direction. The step proposed by the hon. and learned Member was, he believed, perfectly feasible, and he trusted it would receive the support of Her Majesty's Government.


said, the Land Transfer Commission reported, in 1870, that the system of registering deeds caused great expense, that it afforded no additional security, and that it ought not to be continued. They, therefore, recommended that the registracy office should be closed, so far as concerned deeds executed after a certain date. The late Lord Chief Justice, therefore, refused to fill up one of the two registrar-ships which fell vacant. There wore now only two nominal Registrars—namely, Lord Truro and the Queen's Remembrancer; and Lord Truro's share of the fees was £4,000 a-year. His Lordship admitted that he never went to the office, because it was more trouble than profit, and simply interfered with the clerks, and said he thought it was better to stop away. The office involved a considerable tax of money and expense, without any corresponding benefit whatever to persons interested in land in Middlesex. It only resulted in the exaction of fees from the purchaser. Yet, by this Bill, it was proposed to recast and renovate this useless and injurious institution, which seemed to exist only for the purpose of taking fees. He could not agree with the hon. Member for East Sussex (Mr. Gregory) in thinking that the system of equitable mortgage was to be condemned. Although, of course, there were frauds in connection with it, as there were, perhaps, in connection with other transactions, yet, comparing the number of frauds with the number of transactions, the former were small. The hon. Member for East Sussex had spoken of the immense advantage of a registry of deeds; and if all property was held by fee simple, and if there were no transactions but purchase or mortgage, it would be easy to ascertain by looking at a Register what the exact title was; but if a varity of charges were allowed, portions, jointures, terms of years, and so on, which occurred in all settlements of family estates, people would not by registration of deeds be able to obtain that certainty which they looked for. They would have to trust to a lawyer to ascertain what the exact title was at the moment of their examining the property. The system of registration of deeds would not present at a glance the exact state of a title. He declined to admit, therefore, as a general rule, that the registration of deeds would secure that convenience which the hon. Member for East Sussex had claimed for it. With regard to the doctrine of tacking which had been alluded to, he (Mr. Courtney) did not defend it; but that doctrine might be abolished without requiring deeds to be registered, and a simple Bill of one clause might put an end to it. There could be no doubt that the registration of title had been advocated by many great law reformers in this country, and was the aim for which Commission after Commission had strenuously striven. The hon. Member for East Sussex appeared to give up that scheme as being impracticable, and he might be right; but the Government had not come to that conclusion. It was impossible for them to accept the principle that the registration of deeds was the policy which they were to pursue in dealing with the question of the transfer of land. In conclusion, he hoped that the hon. and learned Member for Stockport (Mr. Hopwood) would rest content with the reception which had been given to his Bill that day, and not press it any further.


said, he would consent to withdraw the Bill in the hope that the discussion that day would be an additional incentive to dealing in future with the subject.


remarked, that it had been the intention of the Government during the present Session to have dealt in a comprehensive way with the question of land titles and transfer in England. No one could be astonished that they had been unable to do that; but the fact that they had been obliged to put it off did not prove that they were not going to deal with it. The matter would come on the earliest opportunity under the consideration of the Government, and then Parliament would have to decide between the system of registration of deeds and the registration of title.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

Bill withdrawn.