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Adverse Possession – the dangers for landowners

You own some land that is not registered at the Land Registry, as you have owned it for many years. You haven’t inspected the land regularly but decide to register it, or you visit to discover that someone else is in occupation.

At that point, you find out that either someone else has registered title at the Land Registry to your land, or they are claiming ownership.  How can this have happened when you have the title deeds showing the land in your name?
Land can be acquired by a third party who is not the legal owner by virtue of their having occupied the property without the landowner’s consent for a defined period of time, so dispossessing the paper owner.
All the squatter needs to prove is:

  • Uninterrupted factual possession of the land for the required period and,
  • An intention to “possess” the land – i.e. to the exclusion of others

If they can show this then the Land Registry may give the occupier what is known as a possessory title to the land.
What can a landowner do about this?
For unregistered land, the effect of the Limitation Act 1980 is that the title of the owner will be extinguished 12 years after the squatter first begins to fulfil the conditions above. Once that has happened there is nothing the paper owner can do as his/her title will have been extinguished.
For registered land there is more hope; in that case, the ownership is derived from the title being registered at the land registry rather than from possession or paper title deeds. A squatter is entitled to apply to the Land Registry after 10 years of adverse possession, but the registered proprietor (and certain others interested in the land, such as a lender) will be formally notified of the squatter’s application and giving an opportunity to object.
So having your land registered at the Land Registry gives increased protection to landowners against third parties claiming ownership to their land. If your land is not already registered then you should consider making a voluntary application for first registration. Once registered, make sure that the Land Registry is notified if you change your address, in case they ever need to contact you.
If a third party is in occupation of your land, then formalise this by way of a lease, licence or similar.
Contact the commercial property team at Wilson Browne for further advice.