A recent High Court judgment serves as a reminder to landowners of what are commonly referred to as “squatters rights”.
Alston v BOCM concerned land owned by BOCM which had been farmed by Alston for a number of years. When BOCM wanted to get possession of their land back, Alston claimed that they had acquired the land due to the length of time they had been in occupation under the legal principle of adverse possession. The surprising aspect of this claim was that Alston had been granted a favour by the original owner, allowing them to use the land rent free, and a change in ownership of the land was the trigger for Alston becoming a squatter and ultimately gaining ownership.
This is the type of case that leaves non-lawyers scratching their heads, so how can it happen? English law places a time limit of 12 years from the commencement of unlawful occupation of land which is not registered at the Land Registry, within which civil court proceedings to remove a squatter have to be started. Once that time limit expires the owner is powerless to evict the squatter, who gains title to the land. The central issue in this case was, when did Alston actually become a squatter, and hence the 12 year time period start to run?
In 1974 Alston went into occupation of the land with the permission of the owner allowing them to farm rent free until such time as the owner wanted the land back.
In March 1977 ownership of the land was sold to the BOCM group, who did not contact Alston to discuss their use of the land, and Alston continued to farm the land for the next 12 years and beyond. This sale had the legal effect of terminating the permission granted to Alston to use the land. Therefore, Alston had no legal right to occupy the land and was a squatter from March 1977, even though BOCM may not have viewed them as such.
The High Court held that in order to imply permission had been granted to occupy the land, there had to at least be some dialogue between the parties concerning the occupation of the property, but this had not happened in the present case. BOCM simply sat back and did nothing, this acquiescence proved fatal to their ownership of the land.
So what can landowners do? The government legislated in 2002 to disapply the rules of adverse possession in relation to registered land, and a registered owner will be given notice of any attempt to claim title and a specified time limit within which they can recover possession of their land.
Any unregistered land can be registered at the Land Registry voluntarily at any time, and it must be registered when ownership is transferred. This is a common sense and effective way of avoiding a claim for adverse possession.
Also any agreement relating to land should be properly documented, if BOCM had made the effort to speak to Alston any time before 1989, Alston would probably have signed a simple licence to occupy to regularise their position, and BOCM would still own their land.