Prescriptive Rights and Torrens System Interplay: Land Registration Case Law Analysis

Citation: [2023] UKPC 43
Judgment on

Introduction

The judicial determination in the case of Francis Chitolie and another v Saint Lucia National Housing Corporation (Saint Lucia) is significant for its interpretation of the Torrens system of land registration and its interaction with the law on prescription. The Privy Council’s judgment addresses the central question of how prescriptive rights that were in the course of acquisition when the Torrens system was introduced, should be treated under the Saint Lucia Civil Code and the Land Registration system. This article analyzes the case law, anchoring the discussion in the legal principles applied.

Key Facts

The appellants, Francis and Vance Chitolie, were involved in legal proceedings with the Saint Lucia National Housing Corporation (NHC) concerning title to a parcel of land, with both parties alleging trespass by the other. The crux of the appellants’ argument hinged on the claim that they had acquired prescriptive title to the disputed land due to uninterrupted possession since at least 1976. The dispute centered around whether possession prior to the implementation of the Saint Lucia Torrens system in 1987 could count towards the 30-year period required for prescription under the Saint Lucia Civil Code.

The Privy Council’s judgment elucidates the function of the Torrens system, emphasizing its purpose to provide certainty of title by registration, and noting that variations exist between jurisdictions. The Land Adjudication Act (LAA) and Land Registration Act (LRA) formed the legislative backbone of this system in Saint Lucia.

The Court had to consider whether possession prior to the Torrens system’s introduction could be combined with post-introduction possession to meet the prescription threshold. The key legal principles revolved around:

  1. The definition of ‘interest in land’ which in the context of the legislation, included in-process prescriptive rights.
  2. The mandatory requirement for individuals with an interest in land to lodge a claim during the Land Registration and Titling Project (LRTP) to safeguard their interests.
  3. The categorization of provisional title, which reflects an in-process acquisition of prescriptive title.
  4. Overriding interests under section 28(f) of the LRA and how they affect registered land.
  5. The principle that registration confers title - the concept of title by registration, not registration of title.
  6. The need for clear statutory language where proprietary rights might be affected, which in this case, supports the conclusion that the legislation clearly intended that rights not claimed under the LRTP would be extinguished.

Outcomes

The Privy Council held that the Torrens system sought definite land titles and required potential claimants to take an active role during the LRTP to protect their interests. They upheld the lower courts’ decisions that possession prior to the Torrens system’s initiation could not be counted towards the acquisition of prescriptive title if a claim was not made during the LRTP. Therefore, the appellants, not having made such a claim, could not rely on their pre-1987 possession to count towards the 30-year requirement.

Conclusion

The decision in Francis Chitolie and another v Saint Lucia National Housing Corporation reinforces the premise of the Torrens system, which aims to ensure clarity and definitiveness in land titles through registration. It also underscores the legislative intent that individuals with interests that may lead to prescriptive rights – those “in the process of being acquired by prescription” at the time of the implementation of the system – are required to take action during the introductory period of the land system reform. The case further clarifies the interpretation of ‘overriding interests’ within the scope of the Saint Lucia Torrens legislation and the consequential effect on untitled possessory claims preceding the system’s effective date. The outcome contributes to a greater understanding of property law in Torrens system jurisdictions and emphasizes the importance of engaging with statutory processes to protect potential property rights.

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