Question Marks on Efficacy of the Principle of Constructive Notice

The doctrine of constructive notice is often criticised for being used extensively and harshly against the parties, particularly in property related matters. In certain situations, the parties might not have the means or resources to inquire or acquire knowledge about the title of a property and other related information.

In India, it is a major problem to prove the title of a property. This is because in India the system of “presumptive titles” is prevalent where title documents are not certified by the State. They remain private documents and do not get the status of public records.[1] This is because the present system under the Registration Act, 1908 only provides for registration of deeds and documents. Moreover even though the Transfer of Property Act, 1882 mandates compulsory registration of transfer of immovable property, there is still lack of proper documentation in this regard. More often than not, this contributes to unsatisfactory state of affairs in conveyancing the transfer of legal title of a property from one person to another.

Due to the lack of clarity in the title of ownership, the onus to inquire and confirm about the ownership and other title related facts lies with the buyer. It is difficult for a buyer to ascertain such facts due to the existing ambiguity and lack of conclusive ownership. A conclusive title may be defined as an unassailable and conclusive proof of ownership of property.[2] The Ministry of Rural Development had prepared a Model Land Titling Bill, 2011, wherein it proposed to set up a Title Registration Authority and an Appellate Tribunal. The conclusive title system provides for certainty of title to land. The proposed system registers the title gives finality and indefeasible rights which cannot be overturned or annulled. Therefore, it does away with repeated, imperfect and costly examination of past titles which is often a problem to the parties while acquiring all the information related to the property.

The court imputes constructive notice on parties in cases of failure to find out all facts related to the title of the party. In certain situations the implication of the doctrine of constructive notice can be harsh and unreasonable on the parties as this notice is implied irrespective of the difficulties in acquiring complete knowledge of the title deeds. The title documents are not certified by the State and therefore remain private, making it very difficult for the parties to locate the documents and find out all the information. The doctrine of constructive notice, however, fails to recognise the ground realities and practical difficulties and tends to arbitrarily impose notice on the parties on their failure to ascertain and verify certain facts for safeguarding his one interest.

Conclusive title of ownership removes the scope of bona fide mistakes as to the past titles or existing burdens affecting the subject property. It also removes the ever-present possibility of fraud by duplication or suppression of deeds, and gives State-guaranteed safety. A conclusive title system requires a single agency to handle property records. Moreover, such single agency should at any given moment mirror the ground reality of the property records. This is known as the mirror principle. In addition, the curtain principle should also be applicable. This principle requires that the record of a title should depict the conclusive ownership status and probing into past transactions and titles of the property should become unnecessary.[3]

Once a property is registered with the aforementioned land titling centre, there shall be a detailed title search including probing into past ownership, transactions and litigation history (if any) to establish non-encumbrance on the land. Thus, before purchasing a property, the buyer would have a clear understanding of the ownership issues and past record. Hence, granting of conclusive title of ownership will make the doctrine of constructive notice redundant and inapplicable to the parties because then there shall be no ambiguity with regard to the title of a property and a court shall not have to impute constructive notice on any party due to their failure to acquire the desired knowledge. This system is followed in Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom wherein one has to prove conclusive title of the property which is thereafter registered. Thereafter, the titleholder registered with the State cannot be dispossessed.

Constructive notice is the equity which treats a man who ought to have known a fact, as if he actually does know it. It presupposes, that in property transactions, a transferee ought to ascertain and verify certain facts for safeguarding his one interest. These facts may relate to the property or the transferor. The basic objective behind these inquiries and verifications is to find whether the property sought to be transferred is free from any charges or encumbrances and whether the transferor is eligible to convey a valid title to the transferee. The rule that applies here is that when a prudent man enters into the market, he would like to take the property free from any charge or encumbrances. Therefore, the rule of “caveat emptor” or “buyer beware” applies here and the transferee has to make inquiry about (a) whether the transferor is competent to make the transfer; (b) whether there is a charge due over the property; and (c) whether any person has temporary or permanent claim over the property.

Constructive notice is only imputed in situations where a person has means of knowing a particular fact but has failed to do so. There exists circumstances which ought to put him on an inquiry, which if prosecuted would lead to discovery of it.[4] However, if the person has no means or opportunities to obtain information about something, notice cannot be imputed on him about that thing. Thus, when the purchaser does not have the slightest idea or suspicion about any earlier agreement entered into, far away from the place where the property is situated, it cannot be said that there was any wilful abstention from the party.

Therefore, the theory upon which courts proceed in holding possession to be constructive notice of whatever rights the occupant may have in the premises is that possession, being prima facie evidence of some interest in the land by the tenant, should normally place a purchaser upon guard and lead him to investigate the extent and nature of such interest. Any failure on his part to make inquiry is, therefore regarded as an exhibition of negligence or bad faith which ought to place him in no better position than that of a purchaser with full knowledge of the adverse claim.[5]

However, in certain situations, this doctrine has been extended to cases hardly within its jurisdiction. For instance, in a case, it was held that possession by one tenant in common is constructive notice of an unrecorded conveyance to him from his co-tenant as against subsequent mortgagee of the latter who had no actual notice. As the object of registry system is to facilitate transfers of property, the purchaser ought, unless there is some potent reason to the contrary, to be able to rely upon the registered records.

In company law parlance, the effect of the doctrine of constructive notice is harsh on the outsider who is entering into a contract with the company because that person is deemed to have a constructive notice of the contents of the documents of the company. In case of default of any condition, the outsider cannot claim relief on the ground that he was unaware of the powers of the company in case of ultra vires of the company.

Moreover, this doctrine does not take notice of the realities of business life because people know a company mostly through the reputation of its promoters and officers and not through its documents. As an antithesis, a new theory called the doctrine of indoor management has been evolved by the courts.[6] The doctrine of constructive notice seeks to protect the company against the outsider; whereas the doctrine of indoor management operates to protect outsiders against the company. The rule of indoor management is based upon obvious reasons of convenience in business relations.

Firstly, the memorandum and articles of association are public documents, open to public documents. However, the details of internal procedures are not thus open to public inspection. Therefore, as per the application of this theory, an outsider is presumed to know the constitution of a company but not what may or may not have taken place within the doors that are closed to him. Moreover, as discussed above the passing of the Land Titling Bill proposed in 2008 shall provide conclusive title of ownership which would in turn reduce if not remove the ambiguity surrounding the information related to the past and present titles.

A shift from the presumptive titling system to the conclusive titling system for recording land titles will make the use of the doctrine of constructive notice redundant as the buyer will only have to prove the conclusive title of the property.


*Bhumesh Verma is Managing Partner at Corp Comm Legal and can be contacted at bhumesh.verma@corpcommlegal.in. **Abhisar Vidyarthi is a Student Researcher with Corp Comm Legal (4th-year student of Maharashtra National Law University, Mumbai)
[1]    Why You May Never Prove Ownership of Your Land, <http://www.indiaspend.com/snapshots/why-you-may-never- prove-ownership-of-your-land>, last accessed on 20-4-2019.

[2]    Dr Madalasa Venkataraman, What is Title Guarantee Worth in Land Markets, IIMB-WP N0. 473, <https://iimb.ac.in/ research/sites/default/files/WP%20No.%20473.pdf>.

[3]    Rita Sinha, Moving Towards Clear Land Titles in India: Potential Benefits, A Road Map and Remaining Challenges <siteresources.worldbank.org/INTIE/Resources/R_Sinha.docx> last accessed on 29-8-2017.

[4]    Ram Coomar Coondoo v. Mcqueen, (1872) 11 Beng LR 46.

[5]    Limitations of the Doctrine of Constructive Notice by Possession. Harvard Law Review 18, No. 3 (1905): 218-19. 33 Royal British Bank v. Turquand, (1856) 6 E&B 327.

[6]    Royal British Bank v. Turquand, (1856) 6 E&B 327.

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