Piece of land, peace of mind

  What Benita Alexander wants more than anything in the whole world is peace of mind. But that won't come until she gets her piece of land.


The 54-year-old grandmother won't rest until she has proper title for the family land she inherited from her father 20 years ago.


"Since I small, I cultivating the land," said the Tobago-born resident of Beetham Gardens, Port of Spain, remembering younger days spent at play in the enviably bountiful fruit trees of her estate and at work with her father on the same plot of highly arable land.


But Benita has no documentary title to her half-acre inheritance in Bethel, Tobago. The handover of property between father and his favourite daughter was entirely by word of mouth and consent, as is often the case with the sub-division of family lands both in Trinidad and Tobago, where people tend to come into possession of real property by some oral agreement, without proper title.


In fact, Registrar General Susan Francois, in a telephone interview with the Sunday Express, described the problem of imperfect title as "endemic to the Caribbean". She explained that at the root of the legal issue was a cultural issue that goes beyond our two islands -- the Caribbean tradition of passing on family lands informally, thereby by-passing all the accompanying legal formalities. The result is the present-day proliferation of "land-rich but money-poor" Caribbean landowners, who are all unable to sell, mortgage, sub-divide or otherwise deal with the property which they have, in some cases, owned or occupied for generations.


In Trinidad, hundreds of landowners have imperfect title, just like Benita. In order to perfect their title, they must apply to the Registrar General's Department to bring their land under the Real Property Ordinance (RPO) Chapter 27, No. 11. The Registrar General explained that there was a special unit within the Registry set up specifically to deal with these RPO applications, which she estimated to number "about 150" every year.


"Most of these applications are approved by the judges," Francois said.


What Francois would not say, even when questioned, was how many of the incoming RPO applications have actually been making their way through her office and to the High Court. Benita and her husband Carlyle Alexander, for example, have spent the last 13 years waiting for the Registry's RPO Unit to process their application -- a job that should take less than a year.


"It's a long, hell of a drawn-out procedure," said Carlyle, himself a son of Mt St George soil.


Out of the couple's limited resources, Benita has paid a small fortune in land taxes and spent thousands on attorney's fees, all in a vain effort to have her RPO application processed and approved and her imperfect title regularised.


"My father died waiting on this. My mother died. I wouldn't like the same thing to happen to me," Benita told the Sunday Express, her trembling face betraying the welling emotion.


She recounted how her parents had had the presence of mind to undertake the legal battle for proper title and how both had died without the peace of mind of completing the process.


"I want the land to come on my name so that I can fence up the place and build on the land because I getting older," she said, signaling to her husband to pull a green form from a pile of legal papers and receipts on the living room centerpiece. The document was an official approval to build on the land, granted by the Ministry of Housing and Settlements.


"The place is ideal for a guest house but I too old to work over there," Mr Alexander said, pointing to the cadastral plan. "I just want to go and settle down, plant a little garden round the place and rest my body. To build a guest house and run it, that is plenty work. I too old for that. But if the children are interested, well?"


But the Alexanders's plans for their posterity have been hanging in the balance for more than a decade.


"Justice delayed is justice denied," Carlyle remarked, "There must be a reason for all this delay."


As Alexander shook his bowed head, the obvious question was as good as written on his wrinkled brow: What could cause Benita's application to be tied up for more than a decade? Over the last 13 years, three different lawyers have taken Benita's RPO application to the Registry but none of them was able to succesfully manoeuvre through the cumbersome legal process. Benita has had to provide statements from witnesses, as well as reports from the on-site investigator, land surveyor and valuator. "They ask for all these things and we still not getting nowhere," said Mr Alexander. "I find that something should be done about it immediately because you're talking in terms of Vision 2020 and people still under pressure here. That can't be right. If it is the government fault, let them do something to have it expedited because people are dying before they could inherit what is theirs."


For what it's worth, the Alexanders are not alone. Eric Taylor, who worked in the Red House as the Assistant Registrar General up to 1980, pointed out that the Alexanders' was just one case of people suffering and literally dying before they could learn the outcome of their RPO applications.


Now a private attorney in Tobago, Taylor spends most of his time dealing with RPO applications. Taylor, whose in-depth knowledge of land crises in the sister isle dates back at least a quarter century, to when he was promoted to Deputy Registrar General and assigned to the sister isle to establish the Tobago branch of the Registry, said many other RPO applicants were still in the dark as to the legitimacy of their claims, some, like Benita, having waited for over a decade for some word on the fate of their application.


"I am one private attorney operating in Scarborough, Tobago and my office alone has about 100 RPO applications outstanding. The applications are inside but they are not moving, neither forward nor backward. They are just lying there in the Registry."


Taylor identified the current shortage of staff in the Registry as one major contributor to the existing backlog, pointing out that an alarming number of RPO applications were just sitting in the Registry, waiting to be processed.


Registrar General Francois agreed that the Registry was short-staffed and went even further, admitting that her Department was without an Examiner of Titles, the official with the responsibility for receiving and processing RPO applications, submitting them to the High Court and liaising with the clients.


The Sunday Express learned that the former Examiner of Titles resigned almost a year ago, in December 2003, creating a vacancy which, to date, has not been formally filled. The resultant bottleneck in the Registry is affecting Trinidadians and Tobagonians alike. Land woes, however, are more prevalent in Tobago, perhaps because the Tobago branch of the Registry was not established until 1980 and Tobago landowners did not in the past undertake the cost and inconvenience of travelling to Trinidad to register their deeds in the Land Registry.


The history of land registration in Tobago gives some insight into the roots of the island's present-day land woes. As far back as the nineteenth century, owners or occupiers of real property, in order to gain proper title, were required to present their deed of ownership to the then Warden's Office (now the Inland Revenue Office) in Scarborough. Their parcel of land would be entered on the assessment roll and the assessed owner would be given an assessment number with which to register his deeds with the Land Registry in Trinidad. Typically, upon the death of the assessed owner, his offspring were left to share the land as their inheritance. Without proper title, those inheritors, much like Benita, would continue to pay land and building taxes in the name of the deceased but would remain unable to sell, mortgage or otherwise profit from the property.


Tobago landowners' situation was further complicated by Hurricane Flora in 1963 and Tropical Storm Alma in 1974, which left several deeds of ownership either lost or irreparably damaged. Of the surviving deeds, many were ravaged beyond readability by the passage of time, leaving many rightful landowners with no proof of title in hand.


This opened the door for several fraudulent RPO applications to be made by people who claimed that rodents, insects or the forces of nature had conspired to consume their documents of title.


"Everybody had deed in Tobago. Roaches ate some. Rats ate some. And Hurricane Flora went with the rest," quipped Taylor, finding a way to make light of Tobago's historical problem of persons with no legitimate interest in lands getting their applications approved.


The proliferation of fraud caused more stringent guidelines, formulated by a team of High Court Judges and senior legal practitioners, to become part of the requirements to bring land under the Real Property Ordinance. The strict imposition of these narrow guidelines is proving to be yet another obstacle to RPO applicants, despite the best efforts of their lawyers.


Benita is one of many citizens who have invested time, money and considerable effort into securing documentary title of their land. How much longer will the powers that be stand by and allow justice to be denied?