A Torrens title is a single certificate of title for an allotment of land. It is the most common type of title in South Australia. All transactions such as transfers of ownership are registered on the certificate of title.
The Torrens title certificate shows:
- details of who currently owns the property
- any easements - eg for water pipes, registered on the property
- any encumbrances - eg mortgages, registered on the property
- the title's unique reference details - eg volume and folio numbers.
Recent amendments to the Real Property Act 1886 have fundamentally changed the way a property conveyance is undertaken. The catalyst for these changes was the introduction of Electronic Conveyancing, with the associated reforms aligning the requirements for documents lodged electronically and in paper. The amendments relate to:
Land ownership before the Torrens title system
In 1887 there were approximately 40,000 titles to land for the colony of South Australia. Of these approximately 30,000 of the original deeds were lost, 13,000 were owned by absentee landowners, some of whom couldn't be traced, and at least 5,000 were seriously complicated if not defective.
Government records from the period show that £77,000 was lent on mortgages for town property and £45,000 for country lands. The legal profession at the time was said to be earning £100,000 a year from arranging transfers, mortgages and leases.
Early titles were little more than receipts that didn't show the size or position of the land. This could only be identified by a reference number in the margin. These numbers referred to the original maps, many of which were inaccurate. An unexpected deed being unearthed could make landowners vulnerable to charges of fraud and subsequent forfeiture of their livelihood. Private subdivisions only caused more confusion as it wasn't compulsory to engage a licensed surveyor and owners who sold land often refused to surrender the original deeds. This meant that the buyer was committed to uncertain titles.
In 1839 the system of land titles was made even more complex when the district maps were destroyed in a fire. Obliterated survey marks and incorrectly located fences only compounded many of the original errors. After 1842 the district divisions were gradually replaced by counties and hundreds and the land resurveyed and renumbered.
Robert Richard Torrens
The son of Colonel Robert Torrens, a Commissioner appointed to plan the colonisation of South Australia, Robert Richard Torrens (pictured) was appointed Collector of Customs in Adelaide in 1840.
During his 13 years in the role, he was impressed with the simple and efficient system used to regulate the dealings of ships. Under this system evidence of ownership was in the form of a certificate, and all dealings for the ship were registered on it. In contrast the land titles system was complex, uncertain and only defensible by those who profited from it.
Torrens believed that the system used to regulate ships could easily be applied to land. Although public support was strong, many people suspected that the legal profession would oppose such a move. In 1853 Torrens was appointed Register-General of Deeds, but it wasn't until 1857 when he was elected to the House of Assembly of the South Australian Parliament that he began campaigning for reform in earnest.
Land title reform
In June 1857 Torrens introduced his Bill for the reform to Parliament. The three main principles of the Bill were:
- that the title would be surrendered on sale and a new grant would be issued
- registration alone would provide validity to land dealings
- simple, standardised forms would eliminate the need for a solicitor except in complex cases.
The Bill faced minimal opposition and was passed in 1857 resulting in the Real Property Act 1858. This Act established the Land Titles Board that would be able to give a title of real property by certificate rather than deed.
Once the Act was passed Torrens resigned from the House and accepted the position of first Register-General of Titles. The Torrens Title system was simple, cheap and easily understood. Crown land that was freehold after the 1 July 1858 had to be registered at the Lands Titles Office and the owner was given a copy of the certificate entered into the official register. Any transactions that affected the land -eg mortgage, encumbrances, would be registered on the certificate. If the land was sold the vendor had to surrender the title to the buyer who registered a transfer of ownership. The state had now assumed the responsibility of proving the validity of titles.
Once the new system was in place Torrens toured the other states advocating its use. By 1870 the new system had already been adopted throughout Australia and was being implemented in New Zealand. The system has since been adopted or partially adopted internationally as a simple system of land title management.