HL Deb 06 March 1992 vol 536 cc1151-5

2.11 p.m.

Baroness Hooper rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 11th February be approved.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the main aim of the order is to simplify the procedure for the registration of the ownership of land by the Land Registry of Northern Ireland. The opportunity has also been taken to amend and streamline the procedure for registration of certain documents in the Registry of Deeds.

The two registrars are branches of the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland and perform different functions. The Registry of Deeds notes the existence of deeds and other documents affecting land so that persons making a search in the registry can ascertain what documents affect a particular plot of land. The Land Registry interprets the effect of the documents, sets out on an official register concise details of the ownership and burdens affecting each registered holding and maintains maps showing the extent and situation of each holding.

As a result of concern about the delay and expense involved in registration of title, the department in 1989 put forward the Land Registry as a candidate for scrutiny by the Efficiency Unit. The scrutiny team's report which followed resulted in an action plan, the implementation of which commenced early in 1990. There has been a significant improvement in the Land Registry's performance since early 1990 but more remains to be done. This draft Order in Council has been prepared as a direct result of the proposals contained in the plan.

Part II—the main part of the draft order—contains provisions which will enable the Land Registry to become still more efficient. For example, Article 6 abolishes the different classes of register in the Land Registry in favour of a single "title register".

Article 14 in particular facilitates increased reliance by the Land Registry on solicitors' certificates. That will reduce significantly the amount of checking of dealings which has to be undertaken by Land Registry staff. Article 29 extends the power of the Registrar of Titles to rectify mistakes in the register or registry map. Article 30 provides for the winding up of the Land Registry Insurance Fund with compensation claims for registration errors being met by the department out of moneys provided by Parliament.

Articles 31 and 32 provide for the determination by the Lands Tribunal of disputes about compensation arising out of registration errors and revise the circumstances in which the department may seek recovery from certain persons of compensation that is paid out as a result of such errors. Article 36 and other provisions enable maps, registers and indices to be kept in a computerised form and generally help to simplify the procedures and reduce the amount of checking and therefore the expense involved in registration of title generally.

Generally, the land registration amendments and the resultant simplification and speeding up of the registration process will enable more work to he undertaken by the existing staff and pave the way for the introduction of a programme of extension of compulsory registration of title, on an area by area basis, to all land in Northern Ireland.

When the Land Registry was set up in Ireland, its main task was to register farmland which had been bought out compulsorily by tenants from their landlords under the land purchase acts. Accordingly, the title to most farmland in Northern Ireland is registered but the bulk of the buildings in urban locations is not. It is estimated that the title to about one half of the total number of properties in Northern Ireland is registered in the Land Registry while the other half remains subject to the registration of deeds system. We feel that it is undesirable that such a high proportion remains subject to that registration of deed system since it is a more time-consuming system.

Since the purpose of the order is to simplify the registration of title system so that registration can be completed more quickly and at a reduced cost, the full advantages of the land registry system should be more widely appreciated. Nevertheless, the introduction of a programme of compulsory registration of title will not have the immediate result of making the Registry of Deeds obsolete. Part III of the order therefore introduces amendments to the Registration of Deeds (Northern Ireland) Act 1970. Those changes include provisions which, for example, would facilitate computerisation of the records and indices maintained in the Registry of Deeds and permit regulations to be made providing for the registration of documents which are lodged by post.

The remaining provisions of the draft order are of comparatively minor significance and generally technical and include consequential amendments.

The proposal for the draft order has been circulated for comment to a wide variety of interested parties, including district councils, the Council of Mortgage Lenders, the Law Society of Northern Ireland and other relevant representative bodies. Comments received have been taken into account in drafting the order which is now before your Lordships. I believe that what we suggest is both sensible and necessary. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 11th February be approved.—(Baroness Hooper.)

Lord Prys-Davies

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her explanation of the order and for pointing out the principal advantages to the conveyancing practitioner and the consumer of legal services in Northern Ireland.

In the course of preparing my notes for this discussion, I too learnt that the system of registration of title was first introduced in Northern Ireland a century ago as part of the policy of agrarian reform which has influenced so many other aspects of Northern Ireland life. That explains why until recently the system of registration of title was confined to the rural areas. A high percentage—the noble Baroness said about half— of the total population did not have access to the registration of title system with its declared objects of simple, cheap and speedy conveyancing. The noble Baroness explained that the order will give the population at large access to the new registration of title system before very long.

Another declared object of registration of title is to give finality and certainty to a title so that it is good against the world. Mindful of that objective, I should be grateful if the Minister could explain the wording of the first two lines of Article 14, as I understand that there may he grounds for speculation as to the meaning. However, I should be very surprised if the wording means that the registrar does not have to be satisfied before he approves the title. No doubt the Minister will confirm that.

There is a small point which worries some practitioners. Will the Minister confirm that a copy of the filed plan will be bound up with a certificate of title or the charge certificate as is the practice in England and Wales? Some practitioners believe that they may have to rely too often on verbal description alone, though I believe that Article 28(2) is reassuring on that point.

The Minister explained that the insurance fund backed by the consolidation fund is to be wound up and henceforth compensation will be borne on the department's vote. That is fine and we understand it. Nevertheless, there is some concern among practitioners that the criteria for determining compensation are being changed in a way that may adversely affect the practitioner. For the record it would be helpful if the Minister could give further guidance about the way in which Article 31 will operate. I should be interested to learn why it is left to the Lands Tribunal to determine the question of indemnity and the amount. What will be the position if the question of indemnity turns on an important principle of law? Has any guidance been issued as to practice and procedure before the Lands Tribunal? Another small point but one which is very important for the practitioner is whether compensation includes the recovery of costs.

The Minister has been helpful. She explained the relationship between the two registers. Am I correct in assuming that the deeds register will eventually disappear with the extension of compulsory registration of title throughout Northern Ireland? I also assume—I believe that the Minister confirmed this —that the registration will be extended piecemeal area by area under Article 11 procedure. Currently the extension is by an Order in Council, which is subject to affirmative resolution and takes effect six months thereafter. Under the new procedure the order will be subject to negative resolution and will take effect three months thereafter. Again, I must place on record that practitioners in Northern Ireland fear that three months will not give them sufficient time to prepare for the change.

For my part, although I have no evidence from Northern Ireland to show concern there, I regret that the negative resolution has been substituted for the affirmative resolution. Like many Members of your Lordships' House, I have been persuaded by the arguments of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, and the Select Committee on delegated legislation that the House should not be in a hurry to endorse the substitution.

Article 11 is immovable. I should like to ask the Minister where the Land Registry or the Registry of Deeds will be located in future. Under the 1970 Act the Land Registry consists of a central office in Belfast and local offices, but that statutory provision will cease to have effect henceforth. Does that mean that the Land Registry will be centralised? It is interesting on the other hand that under the Deeds Act, the Registry of Deeds is to be situated in Belfast; but that provision also ceases to have effect. Does that mean that the Deeds Registry will follow the Land Registry? Perhaps the Minister can give some assistance on that point.

I come to my last point. I note that some practitioners in Northern Ireland have expressed concern that their lien for unpaid costs cannot be registered. I have a sense of solidarity with lawyers in Northern Ireland. It is a point that I ought to bring to the Minister's attention. Nevertheless, I believe that their fears may be unfounded and that their interest can be protected by a mere notice or caution. Does the Minister agree?

We support the order. It will assist by giving the consumer speedy access to an effective legal service.

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his welcome of the beneficial effects of the order. I shall endeavour to respond to some of the points that he raised. If I fail to reply to them all at this stage, both I and my noble friend Lord Belstead will scrutinise the issues and write to him.

The noble Lord referred to the somewhat puzzling first two lines of Article 14. I am inclined to agree with him. However, there is an explanation in paragraph 14 of the explanatory memorandum which gives guidance on the order. If a person has suffered as a result of an incorrect registration—and he has not caused or substantially contributed to the loss or been fraudulent—he will have a right to claim compensation from the department. In turn, the department may bring a claim to recover compensation from the person who caused or substantially contributed to the error provided that he has been either negligent or fraudulent.

The draft order permits the Lands Tribunal to hear both claims at the same time where that is appropriate. Presumably it would also be open to a person to whom a solicitor owes a common law duty of care to sue the solicitor for negligence. But I believe it more likely that a claim will be brought by such a person against the department. Of course the usual professional misconduct procedures can be carried out by the Law Society of Northern Ireland.

The noble Lord referred to Article 28. He raised the issue of large holdings of land. It is possible that an area might be omitted. But there is no reason to suppose that the registrar will ignore good conveyancing practice. The purpose of the amendment in so far as it relates to areas is to give greater flexibility in describing plots of land. That relates also to the point made by the noble Lord about file plans being attached to every land certificate. I understand that that is a matter for Land Registry rules which could be made under Section 79 of the 1970 Act or for administrative action rather than primary registration. From the practical point of view, official copies of the land registry map relating to a registered holding can be obtained from the Land Registry, and the owner and legal practitioners should, where possible, keep them with the associated relevant land certificates.

With regard to Articles 31 and 32, whether or not increased acceptance of solicitors' certificates will lead to an increase in premiums depends on members of the profession doing their job properly. It is not the proper role of the Land Registry to operate a quality control system for members of the legal profession. A solicitor, or indeed anyone else, would be liable to reimburse the department only if he had been guilty of fraud or lack of proper care, or to the extent of any advantage that he might have gained. That is entirely fair and appropriate. The Lands Tribunal president is a county court judge. There is a prescribed procedure which will cope once the time comes and if it is seen to be fit and necessary.

A lien on a land certificate arises under Article 25. Unlike a deposit of land certificate it confers no rights in relation to the land as opposed to the land certificate itself. Since LR deals with the registration of title to land, it is not appropriate to permit the registration of a mere personal right relating to the custody of a land certificate.

This is a fairly complex area and I am not sure that I have picked up all the questions that were raised by the noble Lord. If I have not done so I shall take the opportunity to write to him.

On Question, Motion agreed to.