Land. For most, the single biggest asset they will ever own. Whether it’s your residence, a place of business or simply somewhere to enjoy, it deserves the very best protection possible.
With the introduction of land registration, and over 87% of land in the UK now being registered, you would be forgiven for believing that ‘squatter’s rights’ were a thing of the past. However, registered or not, all land is at risk of being lost through squatter’s rights, or as it is formally known, the process of Adverse Possession.
The Land Registration Act 2002 (“LRA 2002”) came into force on 13 October 2003 and creates a new regime for adverse possession claims over registered land.
To be successful in such a claim, a squatter needs to show that they have been in actual possession of the land for 10 years. At that point, they can make an application to the Land Registry to be the registered owner. This application can be opposed by the current registered owner, and if opposed will be rejected unless the squatter can establish one of three conditions;
- It would be unconscionable not to allow the application;
- There is some other reason the applicant should be registered as the proprietor; or
- The applicant is a neighbouring land owner who reasonably believed (for at least 10 years) the land belonged to him or her and the land was not registered in the last year nor has the boundary between the two parcels of land been determined.
However, if no opposition is brought, the land will be registered to the squatter.
If opposition is brought successfully, and the application rejected, that may not be the end of the story. Should the individual remain on the land uninterrupted for a further two year after the rejection of their application, they can reapply for registration.
The old regime continues to apply to unregistered land as well as registered land where at least 12 years’ of the period of adverse possession has taken place before 13 October 2003.
When can adverse possession apply?
The word ‘squatter’ conjures up the image of an individual, holed up in an abandoned home, waiting for the day that they can call it their own. The reality is that adverse possession claims are not limited to deserted houses. Far more often, claims arise over small areas of land such as, for example, a shared forecourt at the front of two semi-detached bungalows. This was the case in Thorpe v Frank  EWCA Civ150.
Thorpe had cultivated an area of the shared forecourt in the 1980s, levelling the land and laying paving slabs. A number of years later, in 2013, Thorpe erected a fence around the slabs and registered the fenced area of the forecourt as his land. This registration was challenged by Frank who argued the land was his. The court ruled in Thorpe’s favour stating that, whilst the land may once have belonged to Frank, the work completed by Thorpe, namely the laying of the slabs, satisfied the criteria for adverse possession. It did not matter that the 'real owner' continued to cross the land after the slabs had been laid.
What could this mean for you?
The Thorpe case clearly demonstrates that adverse possession claims are not always made in relation to unoccupied houses. Instead, adverse possession disputes are often founded at the edges of property boundaries, at points where the land is crossed by both parties. Therefore, whether you own land on which an empty house sits, or simply share a forecourt with your neighbour, you should always be aware of the risks posed by a claim of adverse possession.
What action could you take to protect your land?
Depending on the features of the land you are trying to protect, a number of precautions can be taken to reduce the risk of such a claim, whether the land is registered or unregistered.
The most obvious way of making sure there are no trespassers on your land is to carry out regular visits and inspections of the land to check for any signs of unauthorised use. You should look out for any signs of well-worn foot paths, campfires or rubbish which would indicate frequent use of your property. Fences and hedges should be inspected for any holes or gaps which should be repaired swiftly.
Another precaution may be to protect and clearly define the boundaries of your land; erect walls, fences or plant quick-growing hedgerows along the boundaries of your property to keep trespassers away and to ensure that neighbouring properties are clear on where your land finishes and theirs begin. If you suspect an ongoing trespass, or wish to take additional security measures, you may wish to consider installing motion detector flood lighting, alarms or even a camera system. If you own land that you seldom visit, it may be wise to erect signage clearly stating that there is to be no trespassing over your land. Although unlikely to deter a seasoned squatter it could help defeat a claim for adverse possession.
A further pro-active step to take is to ensure that the Land Registry has up to date contact details for you. This ensures that any registration applications made on land where you are the registered proprietor will be brought to your attention, at which point you can oppose them. Your correspondence address is noted on the Official Copy of Title for the property and it is essential that you keep this up to date.
Additionally, should you bring an opposition successfully, remove the trespasser from your land to ensure no further applications are brought at a later date.
More broadly, it is important to be vigilant of trespassers, clear on the boundaries of your land, and proactive in protecting it.
For any assistance or questions regarding the above, feel free to call the Litigation & Dispute Resolution Team on 01603 610911 or email them here.