Although the concept of private land ownership existed previously in Cambodia, it was abolished during the Democratic Kampuchea (Khmer Rouge) period of 1975-1979 and such abolishment continued until 1989, when a similar concept was re-introduced allowing people to use and occupy land.
In 1992, a Land Law was passed allowing ownership over residential properties. Furthermore, following the passage of the 1993 Constitution, pursuant to which Cambodia adopts a free market economy, a new Land Law was enacted in 2001 replacing the 1992 legislation. This 2001 Land Law (the “Land Law”) allows private ownership to most categories of land and still remains effective except for the provisions that have been amended or deleted as of 21 December 2011 by the Civil Code and the Law on Implementation of the Civil Code.
Because private ownership was not possible before the enactment of the Land Law, the national land registration process was started only after 2001. In effect, many properties remain unregistered. These parts of land are normally held under a variety of documentary forms, normally recognized by the local level authorities, ranging from an application for land occupation to a letter of transfer acknowledged by local authorities to even a simple and private sale-purchase agreement. All of these are known as “soft title” documents.
The phrase “soft title” is neither stated in the Land Law nor any other regulation. However, in practice, this term is being used widely among ordinary Cambodians to refer to any form of land tenure that can serve as evidence of possession or occupation, without any proper registration at the national level with the Cadastral Administration. Thus, soft title is mainly subject to contest by third parties although such an evidential document can act as a step towards legal possession and ownership if it is undisputed and the property is lawfully acquired. Notwithstanding the aforesaid, ordinary Cambodians sometimes accept such a soft title in daily sales and purchases of immovable properties. Also, some financial institutions are known to have accepted soft title documents as collateral for small scale loans.
In contrast, a hard title is a type of property title that is hard, physically and legally, as it is printed on a hard sheet of paper and is strong at law. Hard title is known to refer to three types of property title certificates: Certificate of Land Use and Occupation Rights, Certificate of Immovable Property Possession, and Certificate of Immovable Property Ownership. Of the three, the first two are registered sporadically and indicate possessory status whereas the last one, which is registered systematically in relation to the adjoining parcels, is the strongest and definite one and indicates full ownership status. The first two types of hard title remain theoretically contestable, but in fact they are also registered with the national-level cadastral registry, and there has been hardly any case of dispute pertaining to their status.
When a property is held under a soft title, there is a risk that there might be competing claims to title since it is not confirmed and recorded at the national level registry (Ministry of Land). A common problem is overlapping boundaries. There was no technically reliable way of demarcating boundaries until recently, and the overlaps can be substantial. In addition, other problems associated with a soft title may arise, which may lead to potential disputes, including duplicates of soft title documents issued to different applicants, issuance of a soft title document against the existence of a hard title certificate, issuance of a duplicate soft title while the property has been encumbered, or issuance of a soft title over State property.
Due diligence is required in order to verify at the local commune and district offices who they recognize as the legal owner or possessor of that piece of land. An investigation should also be done with the owners of adjoining properties to find out who they view as the true owner of that land. Moreover, enquiries should be made to the relevant cadastral office as to whether the existing soft title reflects legitimate occupation and can be converted to a hard title.