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Adverse possession

In certain circumstances, a person can acquire land belonging to someone else by 'squatting' there for a defined period – something known as 'adverse possession'. Property solicitor Claire Simmons explains.

In order to acquire title by adverse possession for land that is not registered at the Land Registry (unregistered land), you must show you have had exclusive possession without the consent of the owner for 12 years. Evidence would have to be provided to the Land Registry to prove this. The best evidence for this is if the land has been fenced off so that only you have access to it.

Therefore, it is very difficult to obtain title to paths and roadways, which could be used by other people. Furthermore, you would not be able to make a claim for parking a car on someone’s land.

Land that is registered at Land Registry is more difficult to get title in this way. The Land Registration Act 2002 has reduced the required period to 10 years (the old rules still apply if a person had adverse possession for more than 12 years before the act came into force on Oct 13 2003).

The application will be automatically rejected unless the squatter can make out one of three grounds. If the registered proprietor of the land has led the squatter to believe that the squatter did actually own it and if the squatter has acted in some way to his own detriment on the basis of this then the registered proprietor cannot change his mind and get the land back. Alternatively, the squatter may be entitled to be registered as proprietor for some other reason; perhaps he has a contract to buy it.

Finally, the squatter may have been in adverse possession of land adjacent to their own under the mistaken but reasonable belief it belonged to them. This only applies if the boundary has not been determined by the Land Registry (and it is very rare for it to determine boundaries) and where the land has been registered for more than a year.

The “general boundaries rule” means that Land Registry plans cannot be relied upon to define a property exactly and it is often very difficult to prove from old deeds where the legal boundary is.

So if someone can show that his garden fence has been in its current position for at least 10 years, he should be able to acquire title to any land on his side, even if the neighbour can show the legal title is theirs.

The owner of the land must evict a squatter promptly. If the squatter can show he has occupied the land for a further two years after the rejection of his original application, he will be entitled to be registered as owner.

Please note that this briefing is designed to be informative, not advisory and represents our understanding of English law and practice as at the date indicated. We would always recommend that you should seek specific guidance on any particular legal issue.

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