Author: Roland Brandman
Could you trespass on someone else’s land, act as the owner of it for a long time and on that basis become recognised officially as the new owner?
Surprisingly, that is what the law of this country has allowed, although in recent years the government has clamped down on opportunistic land-grabs.
“Adverse possession” is where a person (the “squatter”) takes over a property and acts as the owner (with the intention to do so), in particular by “exclusively possessing” the property, i.e. excluding other people from it (for example, by fencing off open land or maintaining the locks on a building).
There must be no force used to enter the property and the occupation must not be in secret. Also, permission from the official owner will disqualify the adverse possession.
Historically, if the squatter could show adverse possession meeting these fundamental requirements (and some others) for at least 12 continuous years, then the Land Registry would recognise the squatter as the new owner officially.
This has allowed cases of opportunistic dispossession of other people’s land. To take an example, suppose that you owned a small estate and one day you became fed up with looking at the large vacant parcel of overgrown waste land adjoining the south side of your site. You could walk onto the parcel and fence it off, clean it up, even build on it. After 12 years, you could become the official owner!
Some might see this as tantamount to theft. Others might be more sympathetic to the squatter for putting to good use a property in which the official owner shows insufficient interest even to apply to evict a trespasser with a 12 year period.
Parliament in 2002 decided to curtail the opportunities to acquire official ownership based on adverse possession. However:
So, whilst obtaining ownership through adverse possession is now a lot harder for the opportunistic land-grabber, it does still give a possible remedy to those who have become de facto owners of land on a good faith basis.
One more caveat though – squatting of residential buildings specifically is now a criminal offence. Whilst squatting a residential building for a number of years in theory could result in a squatter becoming the official owner, the threat of a night in the cells or a much worse punishment should discourage anyone setting out to do so.
Roland Brandman, Associate, Fladgate LLP (firstname.lastname@example.org)