Investigation of title

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The process of investigation of title is usually much more involved when land is concerned, rather than moveable possessions. There are two main reasons for this. First, land is expensive so the consequences of error are likely to be severe. Second, all manner of Encumbrance can be attached to titles to land. Very few personal possessions, however expensive, impose duties on their owners outside of those arising from their use. Even if I buy, say, a frighteningly expensive car, it won't create an obligation to maintain the garage. Nor can an agreement I make with my next-door neighbour over the use of the car can be binding on someone to whom I later sell it. Title to land is often accompanied by obligations of this form.

In earlier days -- and occasionally even today -- the investigation of title to land constituted an analysis of the Title deeds. This analysis was expected to reveal the presence of adverse interests that needed to be followed up. Because equitable interests could only be enforced against the purchaser if he had notice of them (see: Doctrine of notice), courts of equity expected the purchaser of land to exercise reasonable prudence before accepting a Conveyance of title. Legal (rather than equitable) interests were -- and are -- subject to statutory limitation on claims (currently set out in the Limitation act (1980)), but no such limitation exists for equitable claims. This means that the prospective purchaser can assume that if the current owner has been in ownership for more than 12 years, then his title is outside the reach of legal claims, and he can safely transfer it. Traditionally equitable interests had to be traced back much further than this: historically a duration of 60 years was expected, but this was reduced by statute gradually over the years, and now stands at 15 years. Of course, if the buyer needs to search back further than this to check, for example, whether the seller's original purchase was sound, then he must do so.

Although it is still sometimes necessary to investigate title this way, a large proportion of land is now registered in the Land registry, and investigation of title constitutes a search of the Registry's records and, if the buyer is prudent, a physical inspection of the land itself.

Land and Property Law