A digital land registry: The example of Mauritius

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It was the Italian novelist Umberto Eco who said that “we like lists because we don't want to die.” List-making and list-keeping are integral parts of human life. Lists can range from the trivial, like shopping lists, to the more important, like the land registry. The latter lists the ownership and movement of land and, in so doing, helps to protect property rights, facilitate transactions in immoveable properties, and enable such properties to be used as collateral, to name but a few purposes.

A land registry is particularly important as land is often the most valuable asset of any individual or business. The land registry, which is the central repository of proof of property ownership and evidence of title, is therefore one of the pillars of modern society.

Information on land is a prime requisite for making decisions related to land investment, development and management. The land registry of Mauritius has moved in leaps and bounds from its origins in 1804 when Mauritius was still under the French colonial administration.

Today, it is administered by the Registrar General Department, which operates under the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development. It is the central registry for maintaining a repository of all documents that are registered, including title deeds relating to immoveable properties. It is administered by the Registrar General, who is also the Conservator of Mortgages. The Registrar General Department has been successful in making a paradigm shift from a paper-based system to a paperless one in less than a decade; a transition which has involved legal, technological and human considerations.

In 2011, the Registrar General Department embarked on the Mauritius eRegistry Project, a visionary system aimed at transforming the department into an e-service body. This project provided the Registrar General and its stakeholders (including the general public) with an electronic dashboard through which they can carry out registry searches, submit documents for registration, pay the registration fees online, and receive their registered documents in electronic form. Documents are now registered on a quasi-real-time basis. Data accuracy is another advantage. Since each transaction is automatically registered on an electronic database with minimal or no human handling, the risk of errors is minimal. It also allows for greater transparency since any stakeholder or member of the public can access land records, on payment of a nominal search fee. The Mauritius eRegistry Project provides for an integrated system by allowing for automatic inclusion of information on registered properties dating back to 1978 and also for different government departments to share information, thus increasing their operational efficiency.

The digitalization of the Registrar General Department has helped Mauritius to considerably improve its Ease of Doing Business ranking with the World Bank. In relation to registering property, Mauritius has moved from 98th position a decade ago to 35th in the 2019 Doing Business Report, with a global ranking of 20th out of 190 countries.

The digitization of the land registry helps greatly in the reliability of the records. However, it is equally important to have a proper land identification system whereby parcels of land can be easily identified. The government of Mauritius embarked on a ground-breaking project known as the Land Administration and Valuation Information Management System (LAVIMS) between 2006 and 2011 aimed at improving access to information and enhancing administrative processes in relation to land by introducing a cadastral database as a comprehensive register of land parcel extents and ownership. This involved, among other things, the digital capture of existing paper records, data capture of deeds, integration of cadastral plans, and digital aerial imagery for the whole island to identify land parcels. The integrated information management systems of the LAVIMS provide up-to-date data on land parcels in Mauritius as well as keeping an updated cadastral index map and individual land parcel boundaries. The Cadastral Unit of the Ministry of Housing is responsible for this and for delivering a Parcel Identification Number (PIN) for use by Surveyors in Land Survey reports and eventually in title deeds evidencing new land transactions.

Keeping track of who owns which pieces of property is difficult when we have hundreds of years of land records. Discrepancies within the paperwork are common, including forged documents, counterfeit titles and, in some cases, a complete loss of all documentation. When these situations arise, it can lead to costly court battles. Digitalization does not provide a solution to these problems.

The next step is likely be the shifting of the land registry from databases stored on physical servers and/ or cloud servers to the blockchain. The blockchain promises secure and immutable record-keeping using a distributed ledger technology. The blockchain is now widely accepted as being the single source of truth inasmuch as, once stored on the blockchain, records cannot be tampered with without detection. There are already a number of startups which are interested in a blockchain-based land registry to render such a central repository even more secure and tamper-proof, while allowing easier and cost-effective back-to-birth traceability of land.

The transparent nature of blockchain's distributed ledger technology makes it the perfect fit for public records systems. Governments across the world are increasingly integrating or at least considering how to integrate their land registry into the blockchain. Such initiatives are seen both in developed and developing countries. In relation to developing countries, which suffer from notoriously bad land registry records due to a combination of factors, the blockchain allows these countries to leapfrog stages of improvement and adopt the blockchain to exponentially boost confidence in their land registration system.

Countries across the globe acknowledge the undeniable advantages that blockchain technology provides to the land registry and its potential to transform the real estate sector. Technological change will only continue to accelerate. It is important that we respond to that change in a timely manner, and make best use of it.

Juristconsult Chambers is a member of DLA Piper Africa, a Swiss Verein whose members are comprised of independent law firms in Africa working with DLA Piper.