New Zealand Law Society - Early times in the Land Transfer Office

Early times in the Land Transfer Office

I enjoyed the legal history article by Sir lan Barker (LawTalk June 2020).

As a law clerk I, too, braved the slope up Courthouse Lane to the church-designed building to search titles, register documents, seek guidance and, if delayed until 4:35pm, witness the loud thundering of the metal blinds built like garage roller doors over all the very tall narrow windows said to be for fire protection.

I give a commentary on the earlier times of the old Land Transfer Office.

My father Tom Dennett joined the then Lands and Deeds Office in 1920 as a cadet and soon became involved in the task to bring about one fifth of all land still in the deeds system under the Land Transfer Act, a huge task to search all the old documents in the deeds system and transfer all the land to the Land Transfer system.

New employees were subject to pranks. The most frequent was a senior’s directive to each new cadet to find the lost document bundle. Another often repeated story was of the new cadet who was directed to go down to the Lands and Surveys Department in Customs Street, advising that he had come to collect the escalator for the Lands and Deeds Office. A clerk in the Lands and Survey Department excelled himself by remembering that there was a stored disused toilet pan and, carefully wrapping it in brown paper and string, sent the boy back to the Lands and Deeds Office telling him to deliver it to the District Land Registrar as the Lands and Survey escalator.

ln 1932 all government servants had their wages reduced by 10%. Tom remembered that the Lands and Deeds Office staff went to the Queen’s Ferry Hotel in Vulcan Lane to celebrate, because at least they had jobs.

The original entrance to the church prior to it being converted to the Lands and Deeds Office was across a grassed area, up the steps from the corner of High Street and the Courthouse Lane. The original church entrance had been blocked up in the early 1930s to prevent people using it as a thoroughfare to the Magistrates’ Court. On the concrete wall on High Street next to the steps was a notice, “Private Entrance Deeds Department Solicitors Only” – a notice that was still on the wall in the 1970s. This meant there was no access to the grass area from the building or the street. Access to this grass area was through a tall window in the new titles room at the back of the large search room. Lands and Deeds office staff lunched on the grass area. There was also an asphalted yard that was ideal for quoits.

Late in the second world war when the Japanese invasion/bombing was considered a possibility, Land and Deeds office staff took turns sleeping at night in a room adjoining the lunchroom upstairs next to the Lands and Survey Plan section and the Companies Office. I can remember when our mother was ill, being taken by Tom and sleeping in the room with him.

The New Zealand Herald in September 1945 reported that Tom and two other Lands and Deeds clerks had grown tired of walking in the hot and crowded city streets and spent lunch hours working in their garden, established on the grass area. The trio were pictured in the Herald working in their garden. The article accompanying the photograph also reported that they were rewarded with a flourishing crop for home consumption.

Sir lan refers to Miss Mon Williams, the cashier who presided from a glass box receiving payment of the registration fees. She also answered the telephone. lf the call was personal for one of the staff, she would put the telephone handle to one side and leave it there until the callee passed her on the way to the search room or back from the search room. This also had the advantage for her of tying up one telephone line.

Tom Dennett gained a reputation as a gracious and helpful mentor to the younger clerks working in the Lands and Deeds office. Many of them were studying law while working in the office. He also gained a reputation for being approachable for the law clerks and lawyers frequenting the office. During the post war boom in housing, solicitors constantly sought his help with dealings with large subdivisions, requiring expertise with the creation of easements, restrictive covenants and the issues of new titles within a timeframe to enable the subdivider to commence the sale process for the sections.

As an Assistant Land Registrar, Tom – with help from an experienced solicitor – developed the composite title system for ‘own your own flats’ which subsequently was described by Sir Bruce Slane in a Law Society newsletter as one of the most significant and worthwhile developments in conveyancing within the existing Land Transfer Act provisions. This system was developed to meet the demand for more than one flat or unit to be built on the local authority designated minimum size section which could not be further subdivided.

A system was devised to grant a lease to each flat owner for 999 years. The lease holder then purchased an undivided share in the freehold section equal to the number of flats on the section. Tom then introduced what became known as the composite title, which allowed for the share in the fee simple and the leasehold estate for the particular flat to be established in one title, a cross lease title.

Tom also arranged for the Land Transfer office to accept and register restrictive covenants as part of the leasehold estate. This concession removed one of the disadvantages of the system, in that areas of exclusive use of parts of the land could be established so that the flat holder not only then had an exclusive use of that flat but also exclusive use of the appropriate land pertaining to the unit.

As a civil servant, Tom was entitled to retire after 40 years’ service with superannuation based on his salary over the final five years of his service. Tom retired the day his 40 years was up but continued to work as a law clerk for legal firms for a further 15 years.

Graeme Dennett

Lawyer Listing for Bots