Home Articles Hong Kong Cadastral Survey System – Comparison and Improvements

Hong Kong Cadastral Survey System – Comparison and Improvements

Tang Hong-wai Conrad

Cheng Nga-fong
Department of Land Surveying and Geo-informatics,
the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hung Hom, HKSAR
[email protected]; [email protected]

The present deeds registration in Hong Kong has been operating under Land Registration Ordinance (LRO, Cap. 128). Deeds and other relevant documents are registered in a form of land register in Land Registry (LR). However, according to the Ordinance, approximate location of the said land parcel or property is only briefly described in the deed or depicted onto the lot identification plan. Recently, the LR proposes the Land Titles Bill (LTB) by the replacement of current deeds registration system. The Proposed bill has no intention to deal with the long neglected land rights: boundary extent.

As such, two typical examples of cadastral survey systems applied in South Africa and Singapore are illustrated and compared with those in Hong Kong, in terms of survey services, registration services and legislative measures. These three regions are selected as comparisons due to their akin past commonwealth backgrounds. They came under British administration at the outset of 1800s with an adoption of deeds registration system.

Survey Services

Geodetic Control Networks
Survey services indicate a long-term investment. Three regions have well-developed and comprehensive geodetic control networks as a basis for their system developments. They have initiated to modernize their former survey frameworks with advanced GPS technology quickly at a minimal cost compared with the traditional techniques, so as to enjoy tremendous benefits – eliminate inconsistency in survey data and improve their survey accuracy.

Whilst South Africa has a negative land registration system, the quality of cadastral surveying is sufficiently well organized and accurate for a positive system of registration. Coordinates uniquely identified on the geodetic grid are mandatory for the beacons of any boundary surveys. Today, all modern surveys have had to be based on the South Africa geodetic control network – Cape Datum with reference to the WGS84, which contributes to uniform standards of accuracy throughout the territory. Singapore cadastral surveys prior to 1925 were carried out by very crude instrumentation considered of lesser accuracy compared to the present system. Singapore is a good example that her system matches the progress of society, by introducing a new survey reference system and making legislative changes to accommodate a complete and secure cadastre. With the research on providing better control and boundary definition, the former Survey Department collaborated with the Nanyang Technological University and the University of New South Wales undertook an Integrated Survey Network (ISN) to revamp a local SVY95 geodetic network in WGS84 datum in 1997. Goh [2000] concludes that this network provides the advantages of implementing all survey records to legal coordinated cadastre, as to describe the land titles by coordinates in accordance with the Boundaries and Survey Maps Act (BSMA, Cap. 25), the Land Surveyors Act (Cap. 156) and its rules.

Boundary survey in Hong Kong provides position fixing and security to the registration of land parcels. A good control network has been established and maintained as a backbone to support the industry by the Geodetic Section of Survey and Mapping Office (SMO). The section is going to implement its network into 2000 GPS Network covering the whole territory. This improvement of survey technology makes the observation more reliable and accurate as compared with the plane-tabling methods used early in the New Territories’ survey. Specific guidelines or instructions on the GPS application are under investigation and likely to be implemented into the Land Survey Ordinance (LSO, Cap. 473) and its regulations.

Land Information Systems and its Sharing
Information technology is a cornerstone of survey services to provide a continuous evolution of land information services to the concerned parties. Both Singapore and Hong Kong obtained sound land information systems developed in the 1990s. These systems are to explore new technologies and standards to ensure spatial data infrastructures which enable the public and private sectors to encourage their effective and strategic use for continuous planning, development and growth of cities. Singapore Land Data Hub consisting of INLIS, Land Information Network Infrastructure and Land Base Information, contributes comprehensive and accurate digitized land data. Boundaries shown on INLIS are meant to be final and conclusive. In the past, land boundary records were internal office records kept and used solely by the government. With the success of Hub, the data are recently used by about 30 government departments, 50 private agencies and even the general public1 .

Besides, attention is particularly paid to the Hong Kong government’s focus on Cadastral Information System (CIS) development in 1989 to transform the 1:1,000 paper land boundary records into digital base information. CIS maintains the land boundary record database and facilitates the preparation of cadastral plans. They are considerable and useful mapping data which vary in quality and availability. With increasing participation of private survey firms, the records have gradually been opened to the society. So far, 4 government departments2 have used a complete set of digital map data to set up their own GIS. However, there is no government department responsible for gathering different land information and managing them in one unique system. Very often the information kept in different offices are not exchangeable.

Registration Services
Three regions have operated land registration systems with the same aim of protection of property owners and proper security of innumerable transactions. They constantly review their work processes and procedures to give better quality services to general public. Although South Africa and Hong Kong have adopted the deeds registration, the intention of registration in South Africa (deeds) is similar to that in Singapore (titles).

Deeds registration in South Africa is regarded not only by South African, but also by foreign jurists as an accurate and reliable deeds system [Barry, 1995; Fourie, 1994; Lester & Teversham, 1995; Radloff, 1996] with security as good as the titles. Simpson [1976] has classified it as titles because there is a reliable accurate record with the support of a high level of boundary survey. Thus, quality of the documentation and processes are very well-developed and safeguarded. It is a de facto guarantee of title, which equals the ‘certificate of title’ in Torrens system. Nevertheless, the deeds system essentially served the needs of the minority white population. Singapore Land Registry (SLR) provides an efficient, transparent, accurate and responsive system of land registration in a land scarce country. SLR is also close to replacing the current dual registration system, with a simpler and more cost-effective one by a title conversion project to be done in phases by survey districts. Hitherto, the remaing common law land is about 1.7% of the total number of land lots. In terms of Land Titles Act (Cap. 157), the processes of examination and registration, their control and monitoring of standards, and its methods of record preservation, serve to provide security of title for law, institutions and general public. Such conversion, ultimately superseded by a fully computerized title registration system, is a long-term intention.

The LRO in Hong Kong, as Nield [1991] said, “is more accurately called ‘Document Registration’ Ordinance for it establishes a simple, traceable and well-managed system of registration of documents affecting land”. Also, Hong Kong has intended to follow other leading jurisdictions for replacing the existing deeds system with titles to support a recovering land market – the formation of proposed LTB. However, the legal settings of both systems never cater for the untouched boundary aspect of registered land parcels. With reference to Section 17 of the Bill, the land boundary plan attached to the deed/title shows an approximate location in every land transaction. These long-hauled boundary uncertainties have accelerated many boundary problems like redevelopment plans withheld for boundary conflict reasons, mortgages granted to land of uncertain boundaries, etc. Hence, the development of registration system has stagnated in the area of providing secure boundary protection, comprehensive cadastral database and other land rights improvements. The LR recently started investigation in boundary extent in the proposed Bill.

Legislative Measures
South Africa and Singapore governments have passed various acts and land codes to regulate cadastral surveying, whereas Hong Kong does not have any legislation governing boundary surveys except LSO. Land Survey Act No. 8 of 1997 in South Africa, the Land Surveyors Act in Singapore and the LSO in Hong Kong, highlight one similarity i.e. boundary surveys have to be carried out under the supervision of a professional land surveyor. It also governs the professional roles among various institutes of land surveyors. Indeed the great advantage of South African cadastral survey system is that Land Survey Act3 unambiguously identifies the position on ground and the extent of rights of every land parcel, in order to minimize the zone of uncertainty in land boundaries. Besides, Deeds Registries Act No. 37 of 1937 in effect makes the transfer of any right in land compulsory and was introduced when any transfer of land was required to take place before a judge, and reliable and accessible registers were kept to record all transactions. Also, registration is impermissible without a diagram approved by the Surveyor General, so as to ensure the record is generally accurate and subject to few challenges to the deed’s correctness [Radloff, 1996]. The entire system is marked by a high degree of reliability and security.

Singapore’s BSMA was introduced to pave the way for legislative and administrative changes to survey practice. It is certainly a brilliant display of constant government policy and system improvement. The conversion of the current coordinates to the new system caters for the future process of electronic retrieval and submission of survey plans. On acceptance of the survey plans, Chief Surveyor updates the cadastral database and produces the cadastral maps, which under Section 13 of the BSMA shall be conclusive evidences in all courts for the boundaries of the land. Specifications and procedures of a boundary survey are set out under the Land Surveyors Act, like general field practice, survey and marking of boundaries, required precision, etc. Although Hong Kong maintains an attainable accurate standard of surveyed boundary, there is no legislation enforceable to govern the boundary survey except that LSO only dealt with subdivision survey until 1996. LSO aims to build up a reliable land record by controlling the subdivision survey standard. For other transactions falling outside LSO, relevant documents and exact boundaries of such lots are still left uncertain. Usually, legal boundary plans, as contemporarily registered, are imprecisely surveyed and are insufficient for present land use. In this circumstance, boundary determination is subject to the best available evidence. The legislative measures for further action have not materialized. The government very less effort in examining and revising the ordinances towards surveying. The straightforward way to solution is to amend the confused land boundary record with legal effect. That is why so many countries like Singapore and South Africa have improved the boundary situation and enacted corresponding boundary and survey laws.

Improvements
To really improve both present and proposed registration situations, the ideal solution would upgrade the proposed Bill to cover properly surveyed and accurate plan accompanied with registration, which is fundamental to the success of the improvement. Also, extending the LSO to cover all land boundary surveys is absolutely essential because the accomplishment of the above goals really depends on the availability of a correct, accurate and comprehensive land boundary record.

System of Specified Boundaries
It is obvious that any title registration system, whereby the Government warrants or guarantees the boundary extent, must be based upon a detailed and accurate plan that is similar to a system of guaranteed boundaries [Willoughby, 1995]. However, in Hong Kong existing system together with its proposed Bill does not denote specified lot boundaries. On Section 17(1) of the Bill to implement as specified boundaries, we propose that every development or redevelopment of land parcels shall contain a properly surveyed boundary plan attached as an important document for registration. The boundary plans with boundaries specified by professional land surveyors, the implemented Bill would make land transfer more certain, secure and fair. In the long run, a more comprehensive and effective land titles registration system could be built up for the benefit of the whole community.

Deposition of Boundary Plans
There is no provision for the deposition of plans of all land boundary surveys such as boundary rectification and boundary re-definition. The provision of plan deposition with SMO only covers subdivision. As per our suggestion with Chan [2001], SMO shall be responsible for maintaining boundary plans submitted by Authorized Land Surveyors (ALSs) or Registered Professional Surveyors (RPSs) for recording all kinds of boundary surveys. All certified boundary plans as inspected and approved by SMO shall be deposited both in LR and SMO to all land development or redevelopment, whether they are whole lots or sections of lots, for registration and maintenance of land boundary records. A prescribed charge shall be made on the submission.

Inspection and Approval of boundary plans
As per Section 30(4) of the LSO, it is difficult for ALSs to comply within the 7-day rule to deposit the certified boundary plan and Survey Record Plan (SRP) kept in both LR and SMO for inspection and approval. Besides, it is not an absolutely compulsory procedure to deliver a duplicate of boundary plan registered with the LR. There are examples of inconsistency boundary plans being kept by LR and SMO (about 3% of non-duplicate plans submitted) since any amended plans might not be re-registered, or even missing boundary plan/SRP records of subdivision survey are not registered in LR [Chan, 2001]. Thence, as our suggestion, we propose all boundary plans certified and signed by ALS, accompanying any instruments delivered into the LR for registration under the LRO, shall be inspected and approved by the SMO prior to its registration with the LR, which show the boundaries and geographical locations of immovable properties as well as other physical features on ground.

Conclusion
This article undertakes a comparative review of cadastral survey systems practised in Hong Kong, Singapore and South Africa. To stop further deterioration in the land boundary record in terms of its security, Singapore and South Africa can be cited as good examples following Hong Kong, to provide a better legal environment in dealing with the century-long inaccurate boundary situation. The environment comprises a set of well-defined ordinances – Land Titles Act, Boundaries Act, Land Surveyors Act and its regulations. In this way all cadastral survey activities are accurately defined. These are vital components to protect land rights and provide adequate boundary security to landowners, in order to support effective land market for sustainable economic development. Hong Kong can move towards a complete cadastral survey system incorporating of adjudication, surveying, registration, dispute resolution and information management.

Acknowledgement
The work described in the article was supported by a grant from the Research Grants Council of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, HKSAR (Project No. PolyU G-W051).

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