The situation in the Deeds Registry approaches crisis

Dear Editor,

In March 1996 by kind courtesy of your Business Page presenter, the evergreen and well informed Christopher Ram, there was published in Stabroek News an article entitled ‘The Deeds Registry, a disaster area.’  On that occasion I had sought to highlight the sordid physical conditions attending many of the documents, volumes and land surveyors’ plans amidst unimaginable archival destruction and not least, the abysmally low level of remuneration paid to the clerical staff.  There has been some degree of physical improvement, but the caption remains relevant, except that the epicentre of the disaster lies mainly in the area of governmental administration and in particular at the office of the Minister of Legal Affairs on Carmichael Street.

The goodly Minister of Legal Affairs by publication of Orders in the Gazette on November, 13, 2010 and March 19, 2011, respectively, made two abortive attempts to bring into operation the now infamous Deeds Registry Authority Act 1999 which curiously constitutes no “Authority” at all.  These purported Orders may be safely ignored for the simple reason that the said Act is in no way fashioned to redress the deterioration and rampant ills that continue to afflict the operations of the Deeds Registry.  The Minister is, happily, unable to move this Act forward since that course is administratively a practical impossibility.  My letter to you published in Stabroek News of November 28, 2010 gives some detail.  It is rather irresponsible that an attempt should be made to bring into force the said Act without some essential textual amendment.

This restores focus upon the state of the Deeds Registry as at present constituted. My letter to the Minister dated February 3, 2010 remains unacknowledged. The Guyana Bar Association wrote to him in July, 2010 regarding the status of the Registry, at the same time urging him to give some consideration to the issues raised in my said letter.  What they received in reply was a shameless bit of inanity signed by someone purporting to be an administrative assistant to the Minister.

I have learned that the Bar Association has marked that anniversary by a reminder to the Minister that the serious issues deserve his urgent attention.

Meanwhile the situation at the Registry itself approaches crisis.  There has been no appointment even of an acting Registrar of Deeds which position has remained vacant since May 1, 2011.  For some inscrutable reason our constitution was amended in 2001 to provide that appointment to the posts of Registrar of Deeds and Deputy Registrar should be made by the Judicial Service Commission.  The President has meanwhile made the Minister of Legal Affairs constitutionally responsible for the Deeds Registry and therefore the person to whom the Registrar and Deputy report in the course of their operations.  There has been, apparently, no administrative provision for communication between the Judicial Service Commission and the Minister of Legal Affairs regarding the actual performance of those two officers.  The present and continuing position is that the most senior officer at the Deeds Registry is a Registry Officer acting as Deputy Registrar.

The acting Deputy Registrar, against whom there has never been any allegation of corruption (as in the case of others) is saddled with and temporarily responsible for the burdens inherited from and arising out of the nearly ten-year period immediately past.  It is a managerial and administrative responsibility unfair to be borne by a person of her status experience and training and bereft of the level of technical and managerial support that might be expected of the ministry concerned.

There are several crucial issues for immediate address which will not evaporate but only grow in intensity.

* Training: I have already alluded to the recommendation for training urged by the Sandra V Jones Associates consultancy ever since 2008. Nothing has been done in response. The situation worsens in the absence of a legal practitioner as Registrar and the commitment into the hands of legally untrained members of the staff legal issues and material submitted by lawyers, with no attempt to furnish them with copies of relevant legislation and training in their application.

* The Commercial Registry: It ought to be quite clear to the ministry and the Deeds Registry that the Registry cannot efficiently discharge its principal role in relation to its crucial land titles administration along with the operation of the Commercial Registry – Intellectual Property, Incorporation of Companies, Business Names Registration.  I have dealt with this matter extensively and your own article in Stabroek News of May 23, 2010, testifies.

* The Land Registers: I heard recent whispers about plans to digitize the information in the land registers.  Were this not so serious a matter I would have referred to that idea as some sort of sick joke.  These registers now in a state of sad disrepair are the very soul of the Deeds Registry and to speak so glibly about plans for their treatment suggests that the administration has little appreciation of their historical content and legal, commercial and communal significance.

This is indeed a most compelling reason for insisting upon urgent consideration of the re-location of the Commercial Registry to make way for the operation of a team of officers dedicated to the upgrading of these registers before their information may be translated to another form.

This is by far the most significant undertaking in the treatment and restoration of the records of the Deeds Registry.

* The Vaults:    The storage and retrieval of written material are a crucial aspect of any office of record.  The vault of the Deeds Registry is literally bursting at the seams and each ensuing year demands storage space for volumes of transports, mortgages, leases, powers of attorney, miscellaneous deeds and land surveyors’ plans on deposit.  Add to these the increasing numbers of new companies incorporated, business names registered, bills of sale by the thousand and individual trade marks files.  Only an on-the-spot viewing can really convince one of the present crisis!

The vault at D’Urban backlands containing the older volumes has deteriorated into a virtual dump – a very sad archival disgrace.  Only the resident bats are happy.

Now, why am I carrying on like this?  It is simply because I hate to see a good thing come to ruin and quite unnecessarily. We have a Deeds Registry, once vibrant as a legal and administrative showpiece and a font of vital information but now a brightly-lit poor-house, operating under a ministry where managerial competence, administrative diligence, a sense of responsibility knowledge and care are notably absent, at least where the affairs of the Deeds Registry are concerned.

I have referred ad nauseam to the lassitude of the parliamentary opposition who have never taken the trouble to enquire what I am carrying on about.

They probably despair of their chance of inheriting the problem and so turn their mind to other things.

The commercial bankers and the senior lawyers who process their mortgages sit comfortably aloft and cushioned by their considerable financial gains, care not about these mundane matters, even as the floor below is threatened with disintegration.

I must accordingly lift my eyes and my voice unto the hills of the Presidential Office in the hope that somehow the Head of State may take notice of the crisis that is being spawned under his watch.  He is clearly uninformed.

Were the state of the Registry to be seen in physical terms like a drought or flood, the President would long ago have considered the declaration of a state of emergency with the Deeds Registry a real Disaster Area.  I am truly perplexed that a government so active in the housing sector at all economic levels could sit idly by and permit the vehicle of secure and reliable title to land to fall into such a state of disrepair. At the human level Mr President is my last hope.

Yours faithfully,
Leon O Rockliffe

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