Torrens titles

Information on this page:

  • What is the Torrens title system?
  • Before the Torrens title system
  • Sir Robert Richard Torrens

The Torrens title system provides a secure and reliable land title system that is critical to Victoria's property development and its prosperity.

During 2012 Victoria celebrated 150 years of the Torrens title system. 

What is the Torrens title system?Certificate of Title

The Torrens title system – named after South Australian Sir Robert Richard Torrens, who is largely credited with designing and implementing it – is a method of recording and registering land ownership and interests.

Established in South Australia in 1858, the then revolutionary and efficient land titling system was adopted throughout Australia and New Zealand, and subsequently spread across the world. Countries now using the system include, among others, England and Wales, Ireland, Malaysia, Singapore, Iran, Canada and Madagascar.

The Torrens title system works on three principles:

  1. The land titles Register accurately and completely reflects the current ownership and interests about a person's land.
  2. Because the land titles Register contains all the information about the person's land, it means that ownership and other interests do not have to be proved by long complicated documents, such as title deeds.
  3. Government guarantee provides for compensation to a person who suffers loss of land or a registered interest.

Before the Torrens system

Before the Torrens system was introduced in 1862, a General law title system operated in Victoria. A General law title consisted of a chain of title deeds all of which had to be in place to enable a property to be transferred.

Title deeds are documents that show ownership, as well as rights, obligations, or mortgages on a property.  A General law title could have many deeds, many of which were handwritten, not always legibly.

In colonial times, there was often confusion with the General law title system, particularly if one or more deeds were misplaced.  Because all deeds had to be made available when a property changed ownership there would be serious problems if a deed was missing. The General law title system depended on proof of an unbroken chain of deeds back to the original grant. This chain was made up of all the documents involved in every sale, resale or mortgage of the property.

Torrens created a central registry where all transfers of land are recorded in the register, thereby producing a single title with a unique number (or folio) that also records easements, mortgages and discharges of mortgage.

There are still some General law titles in existence today. A program to convert Victoria's few remaining General law titles to the Torrens title system continues.

Sir Robert Richard Torrens

Born in 1814 in Cork, Ireland, he travelled to South Australia with his wife in 1840.

He became collector of customs and quickly gained a reputation for unorthodox practices: in his first year he was censured for reducing wharfage rates without authority, carelessness with pay lists, unauthorised absences and not supporting some of Governor Sir George Grey's policies.

In 1845 he was sued successfully by a ship's crew for false imprisonment and in 1848 became involved in a battle for control of the Emma Sherrattand its proceeding libel actions.Sir Robert Torrens

Despite these issues and further censuring during his appointment as colonial treasurer and registrar-general, he was a nominated member of the Legislative Council between 1851 and 1857 and member of the Executive Council in 1855.

In 1856, the South Australian Register published the first report and outline of a Torrens bill. Although he claimed authorship of the system, it's clear that it had been an evolutionary process and was not his achievement alone.

He stood for the seat of Adelaide in the 1857 House of Assembly election and won, purely for his land titles reform policies. He continued work on the bill while treasurer between October 1856 and August 1857, but no action was taken on the bill while he was Premier in September 1857.  Despite strong opposition to the bill, it passed through both houses on 27 January 1858.

Torrens became Registrar-General in 1858 and, until his return to England in 1862 to enter politics, he helped turn the Act into a workable system, influencing public opinion and organising petitions to parliament. 

In England he served in the House of Commons and continued to lobby for adoption of his title system in England and Wales.

Torrens died of pneumonia in 1884, having received two British knighthoods – in 1872, Knight Commander of the Order of St Michael and St George (KCMG) for his services 'especially in connection with Registration of Titles to Land Act'; and in 1884, the Knight Grand Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George (GCMG).

He is buried in the graveyard of St John the Baptist Church at Leusdon in Devon, in the south-west of England.

Page last reviewed on 7 October 2014

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