Senators on land titling mess: Garbage in, garbage out

MANILA, Philippines – Senators investigating the land dispute in Visayas Avenue, Quezon City describe the problem of overlapping and fake land titles in the Philippines as “garbage in, garbage out.”

The Senate Committee on Justice and Human Rights conducted a probe Monday into the dispute over about 24 hectares of prime property in Quezon City. Alleged land-grabber Wilfredo Torres is claiming ownership of the land which encompasses middle-class subdivisions Sanville, K-Ville, K-Square, Metro Heights, Arfel Homes, Sadel Court, and Fernwood Gardens, as well as Maria Montessori School, a portion of the Claret Seminary, and a Wilcon Builders outlet under construction.

Alleged land-grabber Wilfredo Torres appears at the Senate hearing on land-titling.

Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile said the case is typical all over the country, where land disputes have become a source of conflict and violence.

Doon pa lang sa survey nagkakaroon na ng kalokohan eh. (Even in survey, anomalies already happen) So you do not know if land really exists in the place where it should be,” Enrile said. “If people were lazy to conduct actual surveys, my God what you register is also nothing…. That is the key to the integrity of land title: the survey plan.”

Aside from surveying, senators also found out that the lack of a database and coordination among government agencies led to the existence of two genuine transfer certificates of title covering the same piece of land.

Eulalio Diaz, administrator of the Land Registration Authority told the Senate that his agency is already implementing a computerization program that plots titles to check overlapping. But when asked if the LRA notifies the parties involved about the overlaps, Diaz said not always.

“For those developers that transact with us regularly, they are informed but the phases we are doing do not put is in the best position to give notice to everybody.”

Senator Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III said that the disorganized titling system leads to the confusion surrounding land ownership. “The common principle applies to this case: Garbage in, garbage out.”

Sen. Aquilino "Koko" Pimentel III calls for reforms in land-titling and reconstitution to avoid disputes.

The Quezon City land dispute is now pending before the Court of Appeals, which granted the homeowners a 60-day temporary restraining order last September 9 to stop Torres from forcing them out of the area.

No records, no database

In the hearing, Torres claimed ownership over the seven contested lots which he said he inherited from his mother.

The Office of the Solicitor General and lawyers for the homeowners, however, argued that the court already declared the “mother title” of the seven lots null and void in 2000. The Land Registration Authority (LRA) said the problem was in 2006, another court issued a reconstitution of seven titles from that supposed cancelled title.

Homeowner and lawyer for K-Ville Subdivision Grace Venus expressed her frustration with the inconsistent decisions. “This is our present fear now. We’ve been having sleepless nights because anytime from today, our lots may be possessed by Mr. Torres.”

Torres insists though that the mother title is valid, vowing to sue the Land Registration Authority for saying otherwise.

Torres’ deputy, Samuel Rodriguez, was also irked by the statements of the homeowners. “Dapat noong araw pa lang kinwestiyon na nila. Nanalo na kami dito noong 2006, ilang beses po ba dapat? Dapat magkaroon tayo ng batas. Wala nang katapusan ito.” (They should have questioned the court decision years ago. We already won in 2006, how many times should we win? We should have a law. This never ends.)

Assistant Solicitor General Eric Remigio Panga admitted that his office only found out about the 2006 court decision a year later because of a problem in file-keeping. Panga added that Torres should have informed his office about the ruling so it could immediately act on the case.

Pimentel said laws should be passed to avoid similar delays. “If a decision is rendered on a case involving transfer certificate of titles, a copy of the decision should be furnished to the OSG. There will always be parties who will not disclose or be truthful. We should have a national database to prevent this from happening again.”

Economic sabotage

Homeowners accuse Torres of land-grabbing, a charge he denies. Vice President Jejomar Binay, head of the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council, has identified Torres as a land-grabber listed on a government watch list of professional squatting syndicates.

Pimentel said while it is the judiciary that will decide on the fate of the homeowners, several reforms should be implemented to prevent a repeat of the land dispute. These include reviewing the rules on land reconstitution, increasing the penalty on erring surveyors, and pushing for a comprehensive bill that will integrate all land registration laws.

Atty. Raul Vasquez, lawyer for Maria Montessori School, stressed the importance of improving land reconstitution. “It’s easy to get a newly reconstituted title, subdivided in turn, and it’s as easy also to sell it at a low price. That would really create a big, big problem.”

Vasquez said the only way to stop land-grabbing is to declare it economic sabotage. “If they are saying the entire Quezon City land titles is under serious question, then there’s really no complete reliance on the Torrens system (land title registration system) anymore.”

“We must penalize not only the ones who masterminded this but also government officials who may be negligent or in cahoots, and make it non-bailable. There would probably be a preventive effect on efforts of certain people.”