History of the Torrens system

Land ownership before Torrens

Land ownership in the early days of the colony of South Australia was based on the English "common law" system of conveyancing. Before land could be transferred, the vendor had to prove ownership to the title by providing evidence of an unbroken series of deeds in the form of a "chain of title".

However, early title deeds were often little more than receipts that showed neither the size nor the position of the land. Such details were held only on the original district maps, which were referenced by a number written in the margin of the relevant deed.

Unfortunately the information on these maps was often inaccurate, with obliterated survey marks and incorrectly located fences only compounding many of the errors. Private subdivisions further added to the confusion, as it wasn't compulsory to engage a licensed surveyor at that time.

Still, many of the original deeds were either lost or held by absent landowners, some of whom couldn't be traced. Others were seriously complicated if not defective. Owners who sold land often refused to surrender the original deeds.

Buyers had little choice but to commit to uncertain title, and an unexpected deed being unearthed could leave them vulnerable to charges of fraud and subsequent forfeiture of their livelihood.

Robert Richard Torrens

The son of Colonel Robert Torrens, a Commissioner tasked with planning the colonisation of South Australia, Robert Richard Torrens (pictured) was appointed Collector of Customs in Adelaide in 1840.

During his 13 years in the role, he was impressed with the simple and efficient system used to regulate the dealings of ships. Under this system, evidence of ownership was in the form of a certificate, and all dealings for the ship were registered on it.

In contrast, the land titling system was complex, uncertain and only defensible by those who profited from it. Torrens believed that the system used to regulate ships could easily be applied to land. Although public support was strong, many people suspected that the legal profession would oppose such a move.

In 1853 Torrens was appointed Register-General of Deeds, but it wasn't until 1857 when he was elected to the House of Assembly of the South Australian Parliament that he began campaigning for reform in earnest.

Land titles reform

In June 1857 Torrens introduced his Bill to Parliament, with its main features being:

  • simple, standardised forms would eliminate the need for a solicitor except in complex cases
  • the title would be surrendered on sale and a new grant issued
  • registration alone would provide validity to land dealings.

The Bill faced minimal opposition and was passed in 1857 resulting in the Real Property Act 1858. The Act established the Land Titles Board that would be able to give a title of real property by certificate rather than deed. Once the Act was passed, Torrens resigned from the House and accepted the position of first Register-General of Titles.

The Torrens Title system was simple, cheap and easily understood. From 1 July 1858, freehold crown land had to be registered with the Lands Titles Office (LTO). The owner was given a copy of the certificate entered into the official register of titles, which was retained by the LTO.

Any transactions that affected the land, such as mortgages and encumbrances, would be registered on both the original and duplicate certificate. If the land was sold the vendor had to surrender the title to the buyer who registered a transfer of ownership. The state had now assumed the responsibility of proving the validity of titles.

Once the new system was in place, Torrens toured the other states advocating its use. By 1870 the new system had already been adopted throughout Australia and was being implemented in New Zealand. The system has since been adopted or partially adopted internationally as a simple system of land title management.

Evolution of title

Over time, the vast majority of land in South Australia has been brought under the Torrens system, and the provisions of the Real Property Act.

Whilst the system's key tenets have remained largely unchanged since its establishment, technology and other advances have seen the way in which land title records are held and dealt with continuously evolve over time.

From various types of paper titles held in bound volumes; to the advent of computerised titles with the introduction of the Torrens Automated Title System in 1990 and eventually the South Australian Integrated Land Information System in 2015; to the removal of duplicate Certificates of Title which enabled the implementation of electronic conveyancing in 2016 - the mechanisms have changed but the Registrar-General's commitment to the integrity of the register has remained constant.