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Property Law in Trinidad and Tobago: A Lawyer’s perspective on Common Property Law Civil Cases in Trinidad and Tobago

A brief overview of the legal issues and remedies involved in property law disputes in Trinidad and Tobago. This article states the law in general terms only and is not intended to be a substitute for seeking legal advice on a specific issue.



Property owner and occupier  having a dispute that needs a  lawyer expert in Trinidad property law


Introduction

Lawyers in Trinidad and Tobago will tell you that property law occupies a large share of the civil litigation cases in Trinidad and Tobago. By property law we are concerned with real estate, land and any buildings upon it, and claims based upon the use and occupation of land and buildings whether by the owner or an authorised or unauthorised user of the land. Property law in Trinidad and Tobago is governed by a mixture of common law, i.e. judicial pronouncements, and statute, largely inherited and modelled after the English system of law.


Property disputes are common in Trinidad and Tobago, and they often involve complex and contentious issues that require legal advice and representation. Some of the most common types of property law litigation cases in Trinidad and Tobago are claims for adverse possession, claims in equity, boundary disputes, trespass to land, and cases concerning disputed title to land. This article provides a brief overview of each of these types of cases and some of the legal principles and remedies that apply. As always, it is not a substitute for seeking specific legal advice on your specific issue or problem.


The Real Property Limitation Act of Trinidad and Tobago - Extinguishing landowner’s title by Adverse Possession Claims




Property law squatter on land has an interest in  property law in Trinidad and Tobago


Adverse possession, or commonly referred as ‘squatters rights’ in Trinidad and Tobago, is a legal doctrine that allows a person who has occupied and used a piece of land for a certain period of time, without the permission or consent of the legal owner, to acquire a valid title to that land (although the resulting document evidencing the interest will be a court order and not a title document such as a deed). The rationale behind this doctrine is to prevent the legal owner from sleeping on his or her rights and to reward the occupier for improving and cultivating the land. In Trinidad and Tobago the relevant statutory period is 16 years. A person can acquire title by adverse possession if he or she has been in continuous and uninterrupted possession of the land and if he or she has acted as the owner of the land and excluded the legal owner from the land for such period. Thereafter the owner’s title is said to be extinguished and no action may be brought against the person in occupation.


The remedy is enforced by a judicial pronouncement. A person who claims to be in occupation for the requisite period must have a court declare this and that the rights of the owner have been extinguished.  Similarly, a landowner’s title is not extinguished until there is a judicial declaration. An example of a successful case is a claim to a neighbouring parcel of land where the claimant successfully extinguished the owner’s rights by his use of the land as a garden or extension of his own home. Landowners are therefore advised to constantly inspect their land for unauthorised use.


Family Relations Claims affecting Property law in Trinidad and Tobago



Relatives with interest in land have a property law dispute in Trinidad and Tobago


There is a broad category of claims often, but not exclusively, involving family relations, that can affect a legal owner’s rights to a property.  These are usually informal family arrangements that eventually deteriorate resulting in a dispute. They commonly occur where one generation (parents or grandparents) makes an agreement which a younger generation refuses to recognise. Where promises have been made to a non-owner of the property who has acted upon such promise in circumstances that the court find inequitable to deny, the court will prevent the landowner from asserting his or her legal rights against the occupier. This may also occur where persons contribute to the acquisition, improvement, or maintenance of a property that is legally owned by another family member. The most common scenario is where a spouse or a cohabitant contributes to the purchase or improvement of a property that is registered in the name of the other spouse or cohabitant. In such cases, the contributing spouse or cohabitant may claim that he or she has a beneficial interest in the property, even though he or she does not have a legal title to it. Other cases occur where a non-owner is given permission to build and develop upon land of another on the assurance that he will be given an interest in the land.  The court will not allow the owner thereafter to exclude such person, who has acted upon the assurance or promise to his detriment. 


There are various technical legal terms used by the court in such scenarios (and there has been judicial disagreement of the exact boundaries of the legal principles and appropriate terms) but, in essence, the court aims to provide an equitable remedy that prevents unconscionable or inequitable conduct. The court has a wide degree of latitude regarding the remedy it may make in such cases including granting a non-owner a declaration of their interest or ordering the legal owner to pay damages to compensate the non-owner for his or her interest.


The remedy is therefore one that is pronounced after a judicial determination of the case. These cases commonly involve family relations but the principle applies wider than that and is not so limited.  Examples of actual successful claims include where a claimant who was not a landowner utilised a portion of land for a business based on the assurance that he will not be removed from same, where a non-owner and defendant to a possession action who looked after an elderly neighbour (former landowner) based upon a promise of an interest in a property was able to successfully resist a possession claim brought on behalf of the estate of the former owner and where a claimant, whose deceased husband had an interest in a family-owned property, sought to exclude her after his death.


Boundary Disputes



A land surveyor hearing the boundary for a property in Trinidad and Tobago to avoid a boundary dispute


Boundary disputes are disputes that arise from the uncertainty or disagreement over the exact boundaries of neighbouring lands, either by deliberate action or uncertainty as to the exact boundaries, caused by inaccurate or outdated surveys, encroachments, easements, adverse possession, or conflicting claims by neighbouring owners. Boundary disputes ought to be resolved without litigation, e.g. by negotiation, mediation or arbitration but commonly end in litigation, where the court is called upon to make a binding decision on the boundary issue. The court may rely on the title deeds, plans, maps, photographs, witnesses, experts, or site visits, to determine the true boundary of the property. The court may also order the parties to rectify the boundary, remove any encroachments, pay damages, or grant injunctions, to enforce its decision and prevent further disputes.


Trespass to Land



A No trespassing sign in Trinidad and Tobago to prevent claims in property law


Trespass to land is the unlawful intrusion by a person on the land of another. It is a legal wrong that occurs when a person enters or remains on another person's land without his or her permission or lawful authority. Trespass to land may also occur, in an appropriate case, where there is interference with the owner's or occupier's use or enjoyment of the land, such as by causing noise, nuisance, pollution, or obstruction. The remedies from the court for trespass to land are usually an injunction preventing the trespass, which is a court order that prohibits the trespasser from continuing or repeating the trespass. The court may also award damages, i.e. compensation for the loss or harm suffered by the owner or occupier of the land or profits for the trespasser keeping the owner out of the land as a result of the trespass.


The Civil Proceedings Rules provides a fast-track method for landowners to get possession of land unlawfully occupied by other parties there without their consent.  This is useful to remove illegal occupants with no claim to an interest in the land and prevents the landowner of having to resort to a lengthy legal process. However, if the occupier makes a claim for an interest in the land, the fast-track system no longer applies, and the matter goes to a full trial.


Cases Concerning Title to Land



Lawyers hold title to land in property law case


Cases concerning title to land are cases that involve the determination of the legal ownership or interest in a property. This may or may not occur as an issue for the court in any of the above instances, where the landowner’s title is brought into dispute. They may also occur when land was been sold and there are conflicting claims to ownership caused for example by fraud or a prior claim. Cases concerning title to land can be complex and costly and involve several parties with an interest in the land. The court will be asked to determine the respective interests make a declaration of the title or interest in the property and may also set aside any deeds or order a conveyance to rectify title.


Indefeasibility of Title in Trinidad and Tobago Property Law


The Real Property Act


The Real Property Act of Trinidad and Tobago gives landowners to whom the act applies (i.e. property registered under the Act, namely those with a certificate of title) protection against claims based on prior unregistered interests and fraud. Some of the relevant sections are:


141. Except in the case of fraud, no person contracting or

dealing with or taking or proposing to take a transfer from the

proprietor of any estate or interest shall be required or in any manner

concerned to enquire or ascertain the circumstances under, or the

consideration for which, such proprietor or any previous proprietor

of the estate or interest in question is or was registered, or to see to

the application of the purchase money or of any part thereof, or

shall be affected by notice, direct or constructive, of any trust or

unregistered interest, any rule of law or equity to the contrary

notwithstanding, and the knowledge that any such trust or

unregistered interest is in existence shall not of itself be imputed

as fraud.


142. Any grant or certificate of title registered under the

provisions of this Act, so long and so far as it remains uncancelled

in the Register Book, and so far as no discrepancy is shown to

exist between it and the duplicate thereof, shall be conclusive

evidence of the matters thereon stated, or thereon endorsed by the

Registrar General, except as in this Act provided.

 

143. No action of ejectment or other action for the recovery of

any land shall lie or be sustained against the person registered as

proprietor thereof under the provisions of this Act, except in any

of the following cases:

(a) the case of a mortgagee or an annuitant or a

lessor as against a mortgagor or a grantor or a

lessee in default;

(b) the case of a person deprived of any land by fraud,

as against the person registered as proprietor of

such land through fraud; or as against a person

deriving, otherwise than as a transferee bona fide

for value, from or through a person so registered

through fraud;

 

(c) the case of a person deprived of or claiming any

land included in any grant or certificate of title

of other land by misdescription of such other

land or of its boundaries, as against the proprietor

of such other land not being a transferee thereof

bona fide for value;

 

(d) the case of a proprietor claiming under the

instrument of title prior in date of registration

under the provisions of this Act, where two or

more grants or two or more certificates of title,

or a grant and a certificate of title, may be

registered under the provisions of this Act in

respect of the same land:

 

And in any case other than as aforesaid, the production of the

original grant, certificate of title, or other instrument shall be held,

both at law and in equity, to be an absolute bar and estoppel to any

such action against the person named in such instrument as the

proprietor of the land therein described, any rule of law or equity

to the contrary notwithstanding: Provided that nothing herein

contained shall prevent a plaintiff from obtaining in an action

judgment for specific performance of a contract for the sale or

lease of land under this Act, nor prevent a beneficiary entitled to

call for a transfer from a trustee from obtaining a decree for such

transfer or such vesting order as hereinbefore mentioned.

 

 

This is a major benefit for landowners or purchasers as it grants protection against fraud and unregistered equitable claims.  A purchaser is not deemed to have knowledge of equitable claims and in the case of fraud is protected once he is a bona fide purchaser for value and not complicit in fraud.


Conclusion on Property Law cases


There are various claims in property law in Trinidad and Tobago that can affect a landowner’s rights to his property. Landowners should be vigilant to inspect their property for unauthorised use and seek legal action promptly. In respect of transactions with third parties and relatives, it is advisable to reduce the arrangements into writing.  This protects both parties and sets out the intention and the relationship created. If a landowner goes back on his promise you should seek legal advice as soon as possible.


Property law in Trinidad and Tobago is a complex area of law requiring specialist legal advice.



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