L. G. William Chapman, B.A., LL.B.
In 1973 (fresh out of law school), as an articled clerk to a prestigious law firm on Sparks Street in Ottawa, it was initially my lot to act as a “gopher” – go for this, go for that. In keeping with the metaphor my so-called office was a warren carved out of a store room bulging with abandoned filing cabinets and stacked boxes of evidence from former litigation claims. The standing of an articled clerk in a law office was about as low as one could go, reflected in my salary of $4,000 per annum.
One of my regular duties was to transport what were often not insubstantial files back and forth between our offices and the Land Registry Office which was located in the basement of the Court House at 1 Nicholas Street. In those days, the model for “closing” a real estate transaction was a meeting of representatives from the respective law firms for the buyer and the seller at the Land Registry Office. The “representatives” were invariably law clerks such as myself or more experienced “conveyancers” employed by the law firms. At these meetings, which were ingloriously conducted at large banks of fixed tables wherever one could secure a place to unfurl the papers (not always an easy matter on a busy day such as the end of the month), the parties for the two teams would exchange signed documents for money. Pointedly in those days there actually was a deed, a collection of about five pages of legal size lined heavy-duty paper containing the names of the parties, the legal description, signatures and associated affidavits of age, execution and spousal status plus the summary “backing”. Although the custom was already in decline in 1973, it was not uncommon to see red seals affixed next to the signatures of the relevant parties.
Once the clerks had accomplished the satisfactory exchange of documents and money, and assuming the inevitable shortfalls and inaccuracies had been approved or undertaken by the governing solicitor for each representative, the clerk representing the buyer then proceeded to the “counter” to register the documents (normally a deed and mortgage). Not infrequently there was a line-up to get an audience with one of the Ministry representatives for approval and registration of the documents. As one approached the Ministry representative (who not unimportantly was located immediately next to the cash register), there was invariably some trepidation about whether the documents would pass muster. The Ministry representative (who was often dour and officious) took the documents with apparent abandon then proceeded to examine them one page at a time until satisfied that all was in order, sometimes stopping superciliously to point out a missing Commissioner’s stamp or other short-coming, the resolution of which might in some cases restart the entire process of consummation of the transaction, obliging the registrant to return to either or both of the other party and respective solicitor, not to mention having to get in line again once the issue was resolved.
When I came to Almonte in June of 1976, the tradition for registration of deeds and mortgages had not changed, though the process was by far more comfortable in the smaller, quaint Land Registry Office on Brougham Street across from St. Paul’s Anglican Church not far from the banks of the Mississippi River. The old red stone Registry office was built upon a template which was used by the government throughout the Province. Not insignificantly one of the universally accepted reasons for the pleasure of doing business at the Almonte Land Registry Office was the presence of Mr. John (“Jack”) C. Smithson, Registrar, and his Deputy, Mrs. Bessie Moses. Jack and Bessie were well-known for their reputation as helpful and singularly pleasant administrators. Indeed it was not uncommon to discover highly skilled City lawyers who welcomed the opportunity to travel to Almonte to close their own deals without delegating the task to a junior, law clerk or conveyancer.
It wasn’t long however before it became apparent that the original Land Registry office on Brougham Street was no longer capable of storing the wealth of documents, plans and associated agreements which were being generated by the perpetual conveyance, development and mortgaging of land throughout Lanark North (which essentially covered the north half of Lanark County, the remainder being handled by the office in Perth). The Perth office on Sunset Boulevard while quite unimpressive architecturally (being merely a “temporary” war-time structure) was nonetheless much larger and for that reason alone was in no threat of being closed. Almonte on the other hand needed something larger. With almost invisible diligence the provincial government proceeded to erect a brand new, state-of-the-art land registry office at its current location on the corner of Industrial Drive and Ottawa Street near Patrice’s grocery store. It was a happy day for Almonte when we attended the opening of the new Land Registry office on a warm and sunny afternoon.
Astonishingly however it later transpired that (presumably as an austerity measure) the succeeding provincial government intended to close the Almonte Land Registry office and relocate its services and contents to Perth. This remarkable turn of events shattered the sensibilities of both the local Bar and the solicitors in the west end of Ottawa who regularly attended closings in Lanark North. What was even more astounding was the government’s published proclamation that because of the sad condition of the building in which the Almonte Land Registry office was housed, it was necessary to relocate to Perth! This was of course incredible in view of the fact that the building had just been constructed! Not to mention that the Perth office was a relic. As you might imagine, there was more to this than meets the eye. While I have no proof, I can only surmise that there were political strings being pulled by the movers and shakers in Perth who naturally had an interest in preserving the proximity of a Land Registry office. Nonetheless the outcry against the closing of the Almonte office was so vocal and so obviously on the side of common sense that in the end we won the day and the Perth office eventually was consumed by Almonte. For a while thereafter this necessitated the attendance of the Perth law firms in Almonte to close their deals, something I confess brought a wicked smile to my face from time to time.
The indignity of having to travel to Almonte to conclude any real estate transaction throughout the County was however not long-lived. To the eternal credit of the provincial government the launch of Teraview (electronic land registration) was underway; and, because Lanark County was relatively small compared to other urban centres such as Ottawa, Toronto and Kingston, we were chosen as the beta site for the institution of the new system. As you might expect there were growing pains. By now the reins of authority in the Land Registry office had been turned over to an up-and-coming bureaucrat from Ottawa, Mrs. Debbie Oosterholt-Walvius, Land Registrar. Debbie had the unenviable task of shepherding lawyers (who are notoriously mired in tradition and slow to adapt to change) through the sometimes complicated procedures of electronic land registration. The matter of title searching was now handled “on-line” which effectively meant that lawyers and their clerks would be able to “access” historical documents remotely from their office desk-top computer through a database in Toronto.
The upshot was that people stopped going to the Land Registry office. Instead lawyers developed a new stratagem for “escrow” closings, an arrangement whereby the lawyers agreed (in writing of course) to swap documents for money (normally exchanged by couriers) importantly without the necessity to meet face-to-face. As a result it is now not uncommon for lawyers to deal with one another over weeks and months without ever meeting in person. Once each party is satisfied with the sufficiency of the conveyancing documents and certified funds, a mere last minute check of the title from the comfort of one’s own desk, the tap of a button on the keyboard, and – voilà it is done!
While I recall wistfully the many happy occasions of congregation at the Land Registry office, the pleasant camaraderie with solicitors, clerks and registry staff, I have to say that on a miserable winter day I can bear the deprivation. I have of course simplified the new electronic registry system but on balance it is impressive. What the future holds for the Land Registry office is no doubt already in the making. The prevalence of the “virtual” office is something to which we are increasingly adjusting in all aspects of commercial activity.