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Land titles system under repair

The Yukon government is reviewing its antiquated Land Titles Act. It's expected to take several years to transform the territory's Victorian-era, paper-based land titles system into a 21st-century, computer-based one.

The Yukon government is reviewing its antiquated Land Titles Act.

It’s expected to take several years to transform the territory’s Victorian-era, paper-based land titles system into a 21st-century, computer-based one.

In the short-term, territorial officials aim to make quick fixes this spring to help shrink a problem real estate lawyers simply call “the gap.”

That’s the time it takes to process a land transfer. In most provinces, it may take an afternoon to several days. In the Yukon, it takes anywhere from two to nine weeks.

Last summer, the gap grew so wide the Yukon’s real estate lawyers threatened to stop work. That would have effectively brought property sales - worth $228 million last year - to a standstill.

“I thought it could have collapsed the Yukon economy,” said Serge Lamarche, a lawyer who led the push for the reform. “It could have had a ripple effect.”

The gap meant lawyers couldn’t meet the deadlines of Toronto-based bankers. As a result, lawyers saw complaints registered against them at the law society.

“The banks gave us four-week grace periods, which should have been plenty of time in any other jurisdiction,” said Graham Lang, a lawyer with Davis LLP.

“But here we were running into six-week delays. And when you try to explain this to the banks, they just think you’re lazy.

“We, as lawyers, take on a lot of the risk in these situations. When we pay out money from a bank, we’re saying certain things occurred. And if there’s no certainty in the system, the bank comes after us.”

It wasn’t just the lawyers who were fed up. Surveyors, realtors and other professionals with a stake in real estate also banded together to pressure the government for change.

As a result, the Yukon Party promised during the last election it would improve the system.

“It’s really important that we have a system that’s efficient, that’s modern, that works for everybody,” said Justice Minister Mike Nixon.

The department has hired Lora Bansley, a lawyer responsible for overseeing Saskatchewan’s land titles system, to conduct the Yukon’s review. She’s expected to produce a report by the end of March.

“I’m excited,” said Lamarche. “We finally have a commitment to do the overhaul that’s long due.”

Bansley will have her work cut out for her.

“It was 1899 when our legislation was originally passed,” said Lesley McCullough, an assistant deputy minister of Justice. “And there’s been next to no changes since then.”

Office records remain largely paper-based. The computer system is 20 years old and predates the Internet, said McCullough.

Some provinces allow title searches to be conducted instantly online. Here it may take a month for a search to be processed, said Val Smith, president of the Yukon Real Estate Association.

Smith and other critics say this is no fault of the staff at the land titles office. “Their workload has increased dramatically,” she said.

Modest improvements have already been made. With more staff at the titles office and a push to speed things up, the gap, on average, is more like several weeks instead of more than a month, said Lamarche.

“Now we’re seeing that change, with this firm commitment, and that’s good.”

McCullough admits that “two and a half weeks is good for us.”

That’s largely thanks to obsolete rules. For example, titles office workers must comb through each page of lengthy mortgage documents.

Developing a standard form mortgage would end this tedium so that only the first few pages of these packages need to be checked by office staff.

“I’m like a dog chasing its own tail, working within the existing legislative framework,” said Lamarche. “And that costs more for clients, which means those costs are being passed on to prospective buyers as well. It’s all linked.”

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