Slip of the pen cost farmer his land

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 October, 2009, 12:00am

A man who has farmed a plot of land since 1963 was shocked to discover nearly 40 years later that because of a decades-old government blunder he did not officially own it.

The New Territories plot had been mistakenly assigned to four other people in 1975, but the owner did not find out until 2000 when he asked why he had not received a rating- valuation notice.

Even then, it took a further six years of wrangling with the Lands Department before the mistake was finally acknowledged and corrected.

Outlining the events in a report yesterday, the Office of the Ombudsman said the department's handling of the case had been 'irresponsible and unreasonable' and it had had 'no regard for the complainant's concerns at all'.

The Lands Department said it accepted the findings and had acted to prevent anything similar happening.

The mistake was traced back to 1975 when staff of the counter conveyancing service of a district office under the former New Territories Administration recorded the lot in the Land Registry as being owned by a group of four people who were strangers to the rightful owner. It was recorded as a gift, although the owner had never assigned the land to anyone after he bought it in 1963.

The counter conveyancing service was taken over by the Lands Department in the early 1990s.

When the owner discovered the mistake in 2000, after inquiring why he had not received a Notice of Rateable Value when all his neighbours had, the department told him to consult his lawyer to determine whether the land had been illegally possessed.

The lawyer wrote to the department four times between 2004 and 2005, but the department did not seek its own legal advice until 2006. It was advised that the government should rectify the error if the mistake was made by the New Territories Administration and it was a matter for the Land Registry.

In 2007 the owner, who was not identified in the report, filed a complaint with the Ombudsman against the Lands Department and the Land Registry for failing to help him. In the middle of that year the registry, in an unprecedented step, registered a statutory declaration naming the complainant as owner. But the department told the owner last year to contact the four people himself and obtain their written confirmation that they had no legal title to the land.

'The mistake was made by a government department, so it should be corrected by the government,' Ombudsman Alan Lai Nin said. 'It is unreasonable for the department to ask the land owner to look for the four.'

The owner had suffered great mental stress. It was up to him whether he filed a civil suit.

Despite the department's belated action, the owner still faces possible problems if he wants to sell. A senior investigator with the Ombudsman's office, Winnie Au Wing-yee, said there could be 'inconvenience' if potential buyers saw old records and found the four listed as owners.

The Lands Department said the case was 'rather unusual'.

It said it had reminded staff of district lands offices to handle public inquiries 'expeditiously and proactively', and to seek legal advice at an early a stage as necessary.

Land wrongs

1963 A resident buys land in the New Territories.

1975 Staff under the former New Territories Administration wrongly include the site on the Land Registry as part of a lot owned by four people.

2000 The resident finds that his site had been incorrectly registered.

2004-2005 The man's lawyer writes to the District Lands Office four times.

2006 The office seeks legal advice.

2007 The Land Registry suggests the man register a statutory declaration to rectify the error and show he is the real owner of the site.

2008 The Lands Department tells the man to contact the four people concerned to obtain written confirmation that they have no legal title to the land.