The Land Tenants Act – 41 years on

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The Land Tenants (Security of Tenure) Act 1981 was enacted to address the injustice facing owners of “chattel” houses on rented land.

Chattels affixed to the land became part of the land and the property of the landlord when the tenancy ended unless it was removable by the tenant.

Whilst many chattels began as wooden structures, over time, they were replaced by substantial concrete structures incapable of removal without destruction.

We inherited colonial land laws that remained outdated to such an extent that, “by the time Independence came in 1962, the system was creaking at the joints and in danger, in some respects, of total collapse” (Wylie – “Land Laws of Trinidad and Tobago” – 1986).

The de la Bastide report in 1977, exposed profound social and economic hardships faced by owners of chattel houses and made recommendations eventually adopted in the act.

Chattel tenancies were converted into 30 year statutory leases with an option to renew and the land could be purchased thereby affording occupants more security of tenure. However by law, the tenant had to notify the landlord in writing of his intention to renew the tenancy before expiration of the tenancy.

On 31 May, 2011, many statutory leases expired and many tenants, blissfully unaware of their statutory obligations, failed to give the requisite written renewal notice to the landlord.

In Ian Simon and Jean Pollonais & Ors. Boodoosingh J. (as he then was) crystallised the dilemma:

“…Having not served the notice within the prescribed time…. the statutory lease expired by operation of law. … the critical issue then is what is to be done given that a substantial dwelling exists on the land and it is attached in such a way that it cannot be removed as a chattel…”

“Parliament’s legislative solution…was to provide a measure of security of tenure for tenants…the statute law does not provide for…entitlement to compensation. whether this omission…may be a lacuna, it is not…a matter for the court to fill. It is for Parliament to do so.

“This is therefore a matter that Parliament may wish to consider with some urgency. I would therefore request the Registrar to forward a copy of this judgment to the Honourable Attorney General for his consideration of my observations.

“Unhappily, this results in the defendants being put out of a property which is of significant value to them and…they must leave without any compensation for the concrete house affixed to the land. It is a result which the Court derives no pleasure in coming to.”

Eight years have elapsed since this exhortation.

In 2017, in Gomez v Mohammed, the Court of Appeal filled a major legislative gap, affirmed by the Privy Council, by ruling that that the evidence supported a proprietary estoppel in favour of the tenants thereby reaffirming the principle that the judiciary remains the legitimate representatives of society.

PETER TAYLOR

Attorney