Land titles is the short name given to the public land registration office housing the archives of the official records concerning legal rights to land, called titles.

Why We Have a Land Titles Registration System?

The point of having a centralized, government-administered location for land titles is to allow quick and efficient verification of the real and true owner of a piece of land, as well as any charges on title, such as easements or mortgages.

In most jurisdictions, the information registered on title is legally assumed to be to be accurate and a subsequent buyer is shielded from any claims which have not been registered on title. In other words, land rights are not legally established unless they are formally registered.

That obviously makes a title search critical as the converse is true: a buyer take his or her interest subject to any interest registered on title, whether they knew of it or not - even if they did not bother to do a title search and instead relied on an ignorant,  negligent or dishonest seller.

land registry officeJustice Epstein wrote the following excellent summary of the law and raison d'être of land titles in Durrani v Augier:

"The essential purpose of land titles legislation is to provide the public with security of title and facility of transfer.

"The notion of title registration establishes title by setting up a register and guaranteeing that a person named as the owner has perfect title, subject only to registered encumbrances and enumerated statutory exceptions.

"The philosophy of a land titles system embodies three principles; namely, the mirror principle, where the register is a perfect mirror of the state of title, the curtain principle, which holds that a purchaser need not investigate the history of past dealings with the land, or search behind the title as depicted on the register, and the insurance principle, where the state guarantees the accuracy of the register and compensates any person who suffers loss as the result of an inaccuracy. These principles form the doctrine of indefeasibility of title and is the essence of the land titles system."

Land is usually divided into segments called districts, lots, parcels, divisions etc. and for each one can be generated a title report, like a unique passport for that one single piece of land.

A Brief History of Land Titles

Every lot can be measured and the exact borders determined with the assistance of a surveyor and legal markers made as to the borders of the land, a concept that is almost as old as civilization (see 2550 BC - The Treaty of Mesilim).

As University of Washington School of law professor Hanstad wrote in his 1998 article:

"Two unique characteristics of land distinguish it from other types of property. First, land is immovable, so it cannot be physically transferred from one person to another. Second, land is permanent; it cannot be increased, decreased, or destroyed as can all other forms of wealth. Land's permanence makes it peculiarly capable of lasting record.

"Land tenure and title featured prominently in early agricultural economies....The Bible tells of an early land transaction in the book of Jeremiah. In 587 B.C. Jeremiah bought his cousin Hanameels's field in a purchase of land that involved a sealed deed prepared in accordance with legal requirements.

"Official records of land ownership date even further to 3000 B.C., where in ancient Egypt rulers kept a Royal Registry to record land ownership for taxation purposes. Much later in Europe, land records were gathered for purposes of taxation. Napoleon's establishment of a cadastre in France encouraged the development of similar systems throughout the continent.

"Although early efforts to establish comprehensive land records systems in Europe were mainly for purposes of public taxation, there were also private needs for land records to facilitate effective land transfers. It was the need for land records that eventually provided the impetus for land registration systems....

"Two categories of land registration systems exist: registration of deeds and registration of title. Registration of deeds developed first. This system, called land recordation in the United States, involves registering or recording of documents affecting interests in land. It developed hundreds of years ago in several European countries to prevent double selling of land. With registration or recordation of the deeds at a government office, the priority of claims could be established in the event of double selling.

"The second system is registration of title. This system was first introduced in Australia, in 1858, by Sir Robert Torrens. Torrens believed that a land register should show the actual state of ownership, rather than just provide evidence of ownership. Under this system, the government guaranteed all rights shown in the land register. Shortly after Torrens introduced the concept of title registration in Australia, a similar system developed in England."

The Many Benefits of a Credible Land Titles System

Land registration serves other purposes such as controlling foreign ownership and the collection of taxes on the sale of real estate or capital gains. land titles also provides a cross-reference against which any adverse possession claim (squatter) might come forward.

North America from outer spaceA reliable land title registry provides an essential service to the economy by opening up credit, enabling the secure loans of large sums of money (mortgaged against title by the borrower) which is usually then invested in the economy. Indeed, the very selling and buying of real estate has become a market in and of itself.

Land registration can also serve to administer certain modern land usages such as long leases, a portion of a building such as condominiums and agriculture land. Land registration reduces litigation by allowing, in the first instance, reliance to be had on the official registry record which can only exceptionally be set aside.

In law, the title a purchasers gets when she or he buys real estate is said to be indefeasible.

As Justice Erb of the Alberta Court of Queen's Bench wrote in Power v Goodman:

"This (indefeasible) principle is important because it permits property owners and property purchasers to rely on title as an accurate reflection of the state of any claims on a specific titled property.

"The principle of indefeasibility is not absolute, however, and several exceptions to the principle exist (eg. adverse possession).

There are many variations of land registration systems, one of the most popular being the Torrens Land Registration System.

Like any legal structure, there will always be clever, opportunistic people ready to take advantage of it. But as Justice Abrams of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts wrote in Kozdras v. Land/Vest Properties:

"The purpose of land registration is to provide a means by which title to land may be readily and reliably ascertained. But these benefits of the registration system are intended primarily for those who act in good faith. It is not a purpose of the system to afford those who deal with registered land in bad faith any greater protection than they would have in similar dealings with unregistered land."