Modernisation of land records in South Africa – a look at the Deeds Registries Amendment Bill

June 1st, 2024
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Since its enactment, the Deeds Registries Act 47 of 1937 has been amended numerous times through various amendment Acts that have been passed over the years.

The most significant amendment is on the horizon with the impending promulgation of the Deeds Registries Amendment Bill B28-2022. The Bill aims to reorient the way that property ownership is recorded. Currently reliant on a paper-based system, the Bill proposes a transition to a fully electronic system, introducing modernisation and potential benefits for all stakeholders including the government. The Bill is currently with the National Assembly.

The promise of increased efficiency is well received. At times, the current system is plagued by slow processing times, often causing delays in property transactions. By migrating to a fully electronic system, the Bill seeks to streamline the process, potentially leading to faster registration times. This efficiency will immensely benefit buyers and sellers, conveyancers and financial institutions involved in mortgage lending where variables like interest can have a huge negative impact even with just a day’s delay in registration.

Data security and privacy are crucial elements addressed by the Bill. An electronic system requires strong safeguards to protect sensitive property data. The Bill makes it mandatory to use electronic signatures and other measures to ensure the authenticity and security of electronic documents. This focus on security is critical to maintain public confidence in the system and to prevent fraud.

Furthermore, the Bill empowers the government to collect certain personal information for statistical purposes and land audits. This data collection could be useful for gaining valuable insights into land ownership patterns and informing future policy decisions related to land reform and development. However, issues around data privacy must be considered and addressed through more robust data protection measures.

Transparency and accessibility are also addressed in the Bill. By improving access to records and information by the Chief Registrar, the Bill aims to increase transparency within the system. This enhanced access could facilitate better oversight and potentially reduce the risk of errors and other inefficiencies.

The Bill does not only focus on technological upgrades. It also proposes updates to regulations governing the appointment and qualifications of the registrars of deeds, with a requirement that they be in possession of a ‘Diploma Iuris, or any other diploma or a degree, that is recognised by the Minister for the Public Service and Administration’.

The definitions of attorney, conveyancer and notary will be extended beyond what the Legal Practice Act 28 of 2014 prescribes. The Bill proposes to accommodate attorneys, conveyancers, and notaries (personnel) who are employed by the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (the Department). Traditionally, only practicing attorneys, conveyancers and notaries are allowed to deal with land transactions in as far as the deeds office is concerned. Personnel employed by the Department will now be empowered to deal with state land in as far as the deeds office is concerned.

However, the Bill is not without its potential setbacks. Digital exclusion will be a reality for some because not everyone may have access to the necessary technology or skills to use the proposed electronic system. This section of the public will have to be accommodated one way or the other. It would be prudent for government to come up with a strategy to bridge this digital gap to ensure inclusivity.

With the prevalence of security breaches within the cyberworld, the transition to a fully electronic system poses new vulnerabilities and issues. Robust cybersecurity measures must be implemented and maintained to minimise the risk of data breaches and ensure the integrity of the system.

In conclusion, the Deeds Registries Amendment Bill represents a significant and long overdue step towards modernising the land registration system. We cannot deny the potential benefits that will be brought about by increased efficiency, security, and transparency. However, addressing concerns regarding digital exclusion and cybersecurity is crucial for the successful implementation of the Bill.

Nina Valetta BA (Hon) Psychology (Africa University) LLB (Rhodes University) is a legal practitioner and conveyancer at MNS Attorneys in Johannesburg.

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2024 (June) DR 13.

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