Big Story 10

Kenyan lawyers wrangle with government over land registry digitization

NAIROBI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Kenyan lawyers have filed a lawsuit halting a government initiative to fast-track land titles by processing them online, which they say has been launched without proper consultation.

The Law Society of Kenya (LSK) sued the land ministry after it issued an order on April 8 to digitize land documents in registries across the country to make it easier to provide ownership titles, especially on communally-held property.

The LSK argued that the process risks being corrupted, as well as reversed by subsequent governments unless it is backed by legislation, and unless consultations are carried out with lawyers and surveyors.

“They are putting the cart before the horse,” LSK president Allen Gichuhi said on Monday.

Gichuhi added that complying with the order could invalidate thousands of land cases pending in the courts, as contested titles could be considered genuine once they are digitized.

Kenya is in the midst of land reforms that include moving decades old records online, making it possible for people to register and verify titles on the internet.

Lands Minister Farida Karoney said the initiative would cut out corruption and allow more people to secure their land rights.

Around two-thirds of Kenya’s land is customarily owned by communities without formal title, making it easy for corrupt individuals to sell or lease it without the communities’ knowledge.

The government argues that digitizing registration documents will help prevent such appropriations by sealing loopholes that allow duplicate titles to be created, which are then used to transfer land without the rightful owner’s knowledge.

Karoney said her ministry is working with the national parliament to pass regulations that would enable the easy titling of land, with a particular focus on community-owned property.

The regulations will allow for the digitization of land records, which is key to creating an online registry that will determine ownership and fast track titles processing, she said.

“We have a slight setback, because it’s a matter before the court,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Gichuhi said that the process of moving documents online has so far been slow, making it a lengthy process for land transactions that previously took a few days or weeks.

“Our clients are suffering. Transactions are stalling,” he said. “Previously it used to take about three weeks (to transfer a title) but now it takes a month or more.”

Kenya is also exploring ways of moving its land registry on to a blockchain platform, which is a ledger of digital transactions that make records secure and easily verifiable, Karoney said.

Rwanda is one of the few African nations that have managed to move all their land records online and is considering introducing blockchain.