Thou Shalt Not Steal Thy Neighbour’s Property

The saddest case I was ever involved in concerned a parcel of land in Discovery Bay that was lost, not to natural disaster, but to a thieving pastor. The following is based upon a true story. Names have been changed to avoid embarrassment. Mary Frankson died in 1968 leaving land to her 8 children, most of whom were themselves senior citizens living overseas. Her Will was not probated owing to difficulties in obtaining a death certificate. Several family members, including her grand-niece, Karen Gibson, and her husband Pastor Gibson, lived on the land for many years. Pastor Gibson offered to help obtain the death certificate and so got a hold of the Certificate of Title.

Then one day the Devil spoke to Pastor Gibson and told him to steal the land from his in-laws. The Pastor signed a transfer of the land from Mary Frankson, now dead for 40 years, over to himself. He took that transfer to a justice of the peace known to him, told the JP that his relative was too old and feeble to sign before him and caused the JP to bear false witness to Mary Frankson’s signature.

Thus, the man of the Cloth became the registered owner of property worth millions. He quickly obtained a mortgage for $14 million from my firm’s client, a reputable building society, on the security of the land. Then he fled the country with the money, without repaying a single dollar of the loan. It wasn’t until months later, when the property was being auctioned from right under Karen and her relatives, that they even realised what had happened. By then, it was too late.

The executor applied to Court to have the Building Society’s mortgage declared void. Under Jamaica’s registered land system, the Certificate of Title is conclusive proof of the ownership of the land mentioned in the certificate. The main exception to this rule is in cases of fraud. Certainly, there appeared to be fraud in this case. The family would probably have been able to recover the land if Pastor Gibson had not mortgaged it to an innocent third party, the Building Society, whose interest was also registered on the title. The case failed, however, as the Building Society was not required to investigate whether the Certificate of Title in the Pastor’s name had been obtained by fraud. So who is responsible for depriving Mary Frankson’s relatives of their promised land?

This article is for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.

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