The mess in our registries

Issue June 2003

I had the great misfortune several weeks back to try to record a deed for a friend on my way into Boston for a meeting. After waiting in line for more than two hours (there were still people in front of me) in the Middlesex South District Registry of Deeds, Registered Land Section, we were all informed that, since it was four o'clock, the registry was closing. However, we could all come back on Saturday morning to record our documents, but it might still be a two- to three-hour wait, in which case we should plan to come back on Monday. And so on… All this to record a single sheet of paper. Unbelievable.

I have to admit that, at my age, I hadn't been in this registry for somewhere in the vicinity of 20 years. But you know what? Not a thing had changed. Same old dilapidated building, same old dusty books, same delays and waits, same inability to find a parking space and, most of all, the same interminable suffering through the same outmoded, archaic, inexcusably inefficient recording system.

Why is this disgraceful mess so hard to change?

And I'm not talking about those famous registry employees, although attitudes do seem to get passed down from generation to generation. What I'm really talking about is a rotting system that desperately needs reform. And that reform has to begin at the top.

Why do we need a Register for every Registry of Deeds? Why not have just one person responsible for the system, with deputies - if deputies are even needed in each registry. Why no new ideas? Why no accountability? Why the lack of productivity per person? Why no scanning devices with document cover sheets to speed the recording process?

In talking to people in line with me, the resignation that things will never change was palpable; but the good ideas for change were still there, with the expectation that they would never be acted upon. Some things take money, I'll agree, but most of this is plain, simple common sense.

We talk a great deal about court reform with the Romney proposals, the Monan Commission and the MBA's task force. But what about reform of our registries and the simple effort to record one piece of paper, which somehow turns into a momentous event? Should it really be that hard?

It seems to me that people have lots of good ideas to improve things. But why doesn't the head of the body listen to these ideas from its members, or to the people who work with that body?

Is the head of this system too comfortable? YES. Is the head afraid of change? YES. Is the head afraid of implementing effective change? YES. Do the heads ever have to record something in a registry? NO, because if they did there would be change.

If the Middlesex Register of Deeds had to stand in line for hours every day to record a simple piece of paper and then stand there for an average of half an hour to one hour to labor through the recording process itself, would he find a way to implement change? You bet your life he would.

Right now, it doesn't appear that anyone cares about this. Yet, someone needs to challenge our Registers to find a way to implement effective change in a way that improves an archaic and dying system. Our Registers must become accountable and must be willing to find a better way. No attorney wants to charge a client for two to three hours of standing in line to record a piece of paper, and no client should ever have to pay for it; but it happens every day.

So here's the challenge to our Registers of Deeds. Is it possible for you to implement effective change and take our registries out of the dark ages of musty books and dungeons? If your compensation depended on it, would that make you implement change and become accountable?

After listening to the disgust, resignation and embarrassment felt by all about our Registries of Deeds, change is long overdue. Will our Registers of Deeds accept this challenge and become accountable? Are you up to it, or are you too comfortable with the unacceptable status quo? Let's find out.