The current Minister of Service for Alberta has recently requested proposals for privatizing our land titles offices. This appears to be following the lead of the governments of Manitoba and Saskatchewan who, I understand, have engaged Teranet — the firm that took over the land titles and land registry systems in Ontario several decades ago.
The success of the privatization of land registration systems in Canada has not been encouraging, as Mitch Kowalski, lawyer and author of The Great Legal Reformation has observed: “Back in the day, anyone could walk into the local registry office and register any document they wanted. Since the mid-1980s, registration documents were not witnessed, nor were signatures checked. The system was one of openness and accessibility.”
The Alberta system is a net revenue generator for provincial coffers and also offers users a fee-based system that is considerably less (as much as seven-fold) than every other province in Canada.
I have no hang-up with the concept of privatization, per se, but we need to exercise caution when considering privatization of a function of government that has been with us since 1886 and is instrumental in all our lives, whether it be related to home ownership, industry, or energy.
Two previous Alberta governments have also proposed privatization of our land titles offices, and former minister Doug Griffiths concluded: “Without competition to drive efficiencies and cost reductions into the system, privatization loses its benefits, and has demonstrated to create substantially increased costs, or reduced services, to users of the system.”
The land titles system in Alberta is modeled on the Torrens system — a system of land registration that was adopted in south Australia in the 1850s and is based on three principles: the mirror principle, the curtain principle, and the assurance principle. Note it is assurance, not just insurance.
Basically, the current certificate of title to a piece of real property reflects the true ownership of the land, and a person does not have to do a historical search to determine if there are any defects in the ownership. The government guarantees the title is true and correct. If anyone is harmed by an incorrect title, their property is restored, or if someone suffers damages, they are compensated. The Alberta system has been so successful that registration fees collected have always returned a surplus to the treasury.
Over the past 40 years the Alberta land titles system has experienced several reforms, from the former handwritten, bound volumes of books to a fully computerized system that is recognized as one of the most modern and efficient systems in the world. Combined with an accurate system of parcel and boundary surveys, the land titles system also establishes the basic framework for virtually all private and public land management and land information systems in the province.
Apparently, the reason the province is considering privatization is the apparent fiscal crunch we are in. I would suggest privatization of one of our basic institutions that stands out as a stalwart for the protection of private property rights is not the place to look.
Over the years our governments have become involved in such enterprises as airlines and banking, which are not typically government functions, but the guarantee of an effective system of land registration is most definitely a function that should remain a governmental responsibility. It is truly a protector of the property rights of all landowners.
Let us not sell off our revenue-producing capital assets. The land titles system provides assurance — the third principle of the Torrens system — not just insurance. Our land registration system is the best guarantee of property rights for Albertans.
To privatize our current land registrations system without public consultation would be a travesty to our democracy.
Ken Allred is a former St. Albert Alderman and MLA.