The Regulations to the Disaster Management Act published on 29 April 2020, include the 11 Deeds offices in South Africa as an essential service under Alert Level 4. However, deeds offices may need some time to implement workplace safety measures before they are able to formally open again, and therefore the backlog in deeds registrations may persist.
A delay is expected due to the need for safety protocols to be implemented and the nature of how the deeds office works.
To ensure the safety of employees and customers, any business authorised to resume operations under the COVID-19 Alert Level 4 must first put in place measures aimed at reducing the spread of the virus. The deeds registrars are therefore obliged to formulate and implement their own workplace plans.
Deeds examiners accept, sort and examine thousands of deeds on a daily basis. The workplace plan must set out how those engaged with each step of the conveyancing transaction are able to operate effectively while at the same time adhering to the required safety measures set out in the workplace plan.
Although the regulations include the opening of the various deeds offices, they will open behind closed doors, for now. We await formal directives from the various deeds offices, and in the absence of a directive from the Chief Registrar, it may be a while before some of the deeds offices open.
In 1969, the Appellate Court referred to ‘the mysterious procedures known only to conveyancers and officers of the deeds office’ in Chief Registrar of Deeds v Hamilton. Unfortunately, not much has changed since. Our deeds registration system is unnecessarily archaic. Registration procedures in South Africa have not developed in line with progress made in technology. With the exception of a few steps, it is still a hand written, manual process with hard copies of most documents needed to effect registration. Hopefully, the current situation may force modernisation. There are deeds registries in the world that are entirely electronic and that should be the aim.
The UK Land Registry is an example where temporary relaxations of some of the formalities are being implemented during the pandemic. The changes relate to identity verification (via videocall) and signing of deeds.
Presently, all conveyancing transactions in South Africa must include the personalised verification of the identities of the parties linked to the transaction. However, the current difficulties presented by the deeds registration process may lead to the need for amendments to the Deeds Registries Act and this would be helpful even beyond the pandemic.