Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi makes his contribution on the Miscellaneous Provisions Bill 2020 yesterday.

Tighter legal processes are being proposed to the govern sale and purchase of land and property—including increasing the penalty for evasion of stamp duty payment from $400 to criminal sanction.

And at least one Independent Senator believes the proposals could adversely affect Trinidad and Tobago’s ease of doing business rating.

Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi yesterday detailed proposed new processes for the conveyancing system in the Senate. These are listed in a bill to amend current law governing the Registrar General’s division, registration of deeds, conveyancing and law of property, stamp duty and registration of title to land.

The bill aims to halt fraud, money laundering and white-collar crime and to protect buyers and attorneys involved in the sector also. Al-Rawi added that stakeholder consultations were held, especially with Law Association of T&T (LATT).

Noting high numbers of deeds registered, Al-Rawi said in 2018, for instance, 27,306 deeds were registered. But since there’s no requirement for agreements on sales or registering, fraud is rife, deeds aren’t registered and stamp duty is lost, he said.

The bill proposes stipulating contracts for sale of property/land which Al-Rawi said will protect purchasers who may not be told the whole truth. He noted cases where people end up in court.

“This (bill) will protect poor people especially, who don’t have the wherewithal to know what’s happening in contracts … if you’re going to dispose of land, your contract for sale will be on record,” he said.

He said contract registration must be done in 12 months, during which time valuations, stamp duty and other aspects can be done. Application for extension of time up to two years will be allowed. A land title will only be passed when the deed is registered—and not when money is paid alone.

For the first time, attorneys involved in sale/purchase transactions will also have to be registered with the Financial Intelligence Unit, hold practicing certificates and must certify in writing to the client what a transaction involves.

“So you won’t have a little old lady saying they didn’t understand what is said and or where lawyers might be sent to disciplinary processes for how they handle things … attorneys must inform clients of obligations to protect them. This will be done via form,” Al-Rawi added.

Amendments will create registries of registrable documents, contracts for sale, beneficial owners and for trusts, the AG said. He said one big area where fraud arises is regarding declared trusts where attorneys do trust arrangements, pay $25 stamp duty and register the deed. But later, he said the property is transferred from the owner to someone else – a relative etc—without stamp duty being paid.

The AG said there’s no reason to “sit on” an unregistered deed except for fraudulent intentions. He said the bill won’t be proclaimed until machinery to handle the expected workload in the Registrar General’s division – and electronic submissions – is implemented. It’s been tested for two years and is expected to begin in September.

But Independent senator Cherisse Seepersad questioned how the Registrar General’s Department would cope with increased work involving electronically submitted documents registries. She said the harsh provisions interfere with people’s ability to sell/purchase property and severely restricts owners’ ability to sell.

She said the rigid proposals will make the process for buying, selling and leasing more complex. Noting processes from Jamaica to Canada, she asked why the system couldn’t be simplified instead of being made complicated.

Seepersad said amendments will place increased hardship and costs on property sale/purchase.

“Lawyers’ fees will rise due to registering/filing increased documents for sales and to cater for penalities. This will cause hardship on sellers and purchasers. Insurance may also increase cost due to associated transaction costs. It could all adversely affect T&T’s ease of doing business rating, now 105, especially in these challenging economic times,” Seepersad said.

Independent Senator Maria Dillon-Remy said a massive public education programme will also be needed for lawyers, land developers and ordinary people to address the bill’s far-reaching effects. She also called on Government to deal with the longstanding Tobago land title issue and not allow the bill to further complicate this, as it currently stands to do.