Tuesday, 22 May 1990
Dáil Éireann Debate
Mr. Spring: I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this matter here this evening. The matter has already been discussed here a number of months ago. It was raised on a number of occasions by way of questions and during Private Members' time. Unfortunately there is still a major crisis in the Land Registry which has been caused solely by Government cutbacks, in particular by the Government's early retirement scheme. The consequences have been the virtual collapse of the services offered by the Land Registry with enormous delays in house and land transactions. In fact, the most recent information I could get is that the backlog of work now stands at 50,000 cases to be processed, the highest figure ever. It has risen by 10,000 over the past number of months, an increase of almost a quarter on the previous year.
The average delay in transferring a site is now two years. Occasionally there are mapping difficulties and this arises particularly in rural Ireland. There is an additional delay of about 20 months because a site transfer should take place within a four month period given normal working practice. There are also 12,000 Land Commission vestings in arrears and it takes approximately 11 years to complete any such vesting. The figures speak for themselves. Urgent action needs to be taken if we are ever to come to grips with these problems.
According to the Department of Justice's own figures the Land Registry have lost 75 staff since 1986, which is approximately 17 per cent of the staff complement. There is provision in the 1990 Estimates for an additional 25 new staff and perhaps the Minister could outline if they have been taken on, and if not, why not? Why is the provision for the 25 additional staff in the Estimate being offset by a cut of nearly 50 per cent in the overtime provision? It is 17 months since the Land Registrar retired. I believe a replacement has just been appointed. Experienced staff are leaving in frustration and morale is at an all time low. In fact there is a sense of desperation  in the office at present. Given the present staff complement and the systems in practice, there is no possibility of the staff getting to grips with the outstanding 50,000 cases and Land Commission vestings awaiting attention.
Even if new staff were appointed tomorrow — and I would like the Minister to clarify the appointment of the proposed additional staff — it would take at least six months to perhaps one year before they would be competent to do the work of the Land Registry.
The Land Registry have been seeking computerisation for a number of years but, to the best of my knowledge, only a very rudimentary system has been provided. Perhaps the Minister would outline the up-to-date position on computerisation of the system in the Land Registry.
One of the most ludicrous problems in the Land Registry is the fact that the Land Registry is more than capable of standing on its own feet. This year the office is expected to contribute £10.3 million to the Exchequer through Land Registry fees and other sources of income. This represents a profit in the region of £1 million to the Exchequer. If I may anticipate the Minister's response for a moment, I think he is likely to inform us that he has provided extra resources for the Land Registry in this year's Estimate but I strongly urge him to look at the situation on the ground and to talk to the small and dedicated staff who, as things stand at present, will not be capable of resolving the enormous difficulties that exist under the present system. Akin to what Deputy Barrett mentioned in relation to a very different problem is the fact that it is a well established common practice that 90 per cent of the times that solicitors contact the Land Registry they include in their letters to the client a request to make sure that they contact their local TD or public representative. This, of course, contributes to the clogging up of work in the Land Registry by virtue of the number of telephone calls or future correspondence involved. It is unfortunate  that we have put ourselves into this position. It would be of assistance to the clients who are paying, what I would say are exorbitant fees — even by today's standards they are expensive — for transactions in relation to the purchase or transfer of land.
By today's standards the Land Registry is an expensive service in relation to the purchase of or dealings with land. In 90 per cent of cases the dealings relate to the transfer of sites for houses. This can be expensive and people are entitled to a better service. Perhaps in the short-term the Minister will not be able to attend to the wider aspects of land registration but, in the long term, there should be a whole updating of land registration to the extent that the exchange of an ordinary semi-detached dwelling on a site which has been properly registered can be effected with the same efficiency as the taxation of a car. There is no justification for having to go through so many procedures. The work should be able to be done in the local registry office rather than clogging up the system as is the case at present.
When this matter was raised in the House on 10 October last suggestions were made for reform of the Land Registry to the effect that it could operate more efficiently and effectively if it was not subject to the bureaucracy of the Department of Justice. I would urge the Minister to reconsider that matter. The Land Registry is capable of standing on its own feet. It earns money for the State. It should provide a basic service for which people pay and for which they should not have to wait years. In many cases severe hardship is caused because loans cannot be processed until the title is in order. On the last occasion this matter was raised, I recollect that the Minister for Justice did not demur unduly at the proposition that responsibility for the Land Registry should be taken from the Department of Justice, a case which has been made for many years. As we have seen in recent months the Department of Justice have their hands full dealing with many other matters. I urge the Minister this evening to take immediate action to provide a  basic service for which people are paying and to which they are entitled. I hope we do not have to come back here again in six or seven months' time seeking an improvement in the service. I suggest to the Minister that the target for the year's end should be to reduce those dealings to 20,000 or 25,000, which would be a welcome achievement.
Minister for Justice (Mr. Burke): I accept fully the Deputy's concern. He will be aware, as I am, that the concerns of the Department of Justice about this issue did not arise for the first time in 1989 or 1990; they go back more years than either of us would like to remember. We have debated this issue in the House and a motion on the matter was tabled by Deputy Jim O'Keeffe on 14-15 November last. I do not propose to dwell at length on the general position in the Land Registry. I am glad, however, to have the opportunity of outlining to the House the steps I have already taken to remedy some of the problems in the registry that have been raised by Deputy Spring and to improve the service being provided. I indicated in the House during the course of the debate on the Private Members' motion on 14 November last that I am very concerned that the Land Registry and Registry of Deeds should provide an efficient and cost-effective service to all who use them. I expressed my concern at the level of delays being experienced by members of the public and by the legal profession in dealing with the registries.
The economic upturn in recent years and the consequent increase in the number of property transactions in the State have placed considerable pressure on these offices. Briefly I will give some indication of the additional workload involved and perhaps it might be helpful if I mention some figures. The total number of applications annually exceeds 250,000 and this has increased steadily since 1985. Dealing applications, which comprise the bulk of the Land Registry work, increased by 18.7 per cent in 1989 compared with 1988 and the overall volume of the main categories of work  lodged in the Land Registry in 1989 show an increase of 4 per cent when compared with 1988.
Shortly after taking office I initiated a general review of the Land Registry and Registry of Deeds. I visited the registry offices on two occasions and had discussions with the management and staff with a view to gaining a first-hand understanding of the office and the problems being experienced there. While I have not yet fully completed the review, I have taken some steps which I hope will bring about some definite improvements in the service. Firstly, the Government have agreed to provide money in 1990 for an additional 35 staff, 13 of whom have already been recruited and have taken up duty, and every effort is being made to have the remaining staff recruited as quickly as possible. As a short-term measure, because I was very conscious of the backlog of case work currently in the Land Registry, some senior staff have been diverted from other work to help deal with cases where the worst delays are occurring. These measures, together with the appointment of additional staff, should make a substantial impact on the arrears. I accept fully what Deputy Spring says, that the position regarding arrears is totally unacceptable.
Deputies will of course be aware that there has been a vacancy in the post of Registrar of Deeds and Title for some time. I am glad to say that a registrar was appointed by the Government about a month ago. In addition, I obtained agreement from the Minister for Finance for the appointment of a number of staff at senior level whom I hope to have appointed within a matter of weeks. These measures should considerably enhance the management structure, which is very important, in the Land Registry. I am also pleased to be able to inform the House that the Government have acceded to my request for a greater investment in computerisation, a matter which was highlighted by Deputy Spring. In 1990 in this area alone there will be an increase in expenditure of the order of 32 per cent over 1989. A programme of computerisation of the abstracts in the  Registry of Deeds will start this year and, when completed, this system will provide for immediate access and fast, accurate search facilities. The computerisation programme in the registry which is already well under way will be extended considerably in future years. On the matter of computerisation, I am considering a number of alternatives to the computerisation that is being carried out within the registry because I believe that is the only way forward in the longer term.
I have had discussions with the newly appointed registrar during which I expressed my concern about the delays being experienced in dealings with the Land Registry and Registry of Deeds. I have asked for an assessment of the additional steps that need to be taken to relieve the arrears situation and to provide an efficient and speedy service to the registry. I am expecting that response very shortly from the new lady registrar. I can assure the House, subject to adequate finance being provided for which I will fight very hard as Minister for Justice, that I will do everything I possibly can to improve the unacceptable level of delays in the Land Registry.
Mr. Burke: It is an ongoing process on the basis of my visits and discussions. The registrar has been appointed. The review is being carried out on the basis of the advice and guidance that I get from the registrar. As I have said, I am waiting for the registrar, who was appointed only about a month ago, to come back to me with her ideas as to the way forward. Her views together with my observations and the proposals which I have in mind in relation to computerisation will point the way forward. I accept fully the concerns expressed by all Members of the House last November in Questions and again by Deputy Spring tonight in relation to the unacceptable level of delays in the Land Registry. I hope that, with the new registrar and the expanded management team, we can come to grips with the problem in the registry.
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