The legal term for ‘Squatter’s rights’ is ‘Adverse Possession’.
Generally, in order to have any chance of claiming ‘Squatter’s rights’ to a parcel of land, you need to ‘possess’ the land in such a way that it is clear to everyone (including the legal owner) that you are using it for yourself and that no-one else can use it.
Fencing in the land is good proof of possession, but you have to have kept the land fenced in for the whole of the appropriate period of possession needed – and not admit to the legal owner that it is their land, or make a written offer to buy it from them.
Often the whole history of your occupation has to be considered to see if you may have acquired any ‘squatter’s rights’.
In 2003, the law changed to make it much more difficult to claim squatter’s rights over Registered Land.
Or a boundary error?
In many cases, the problem is simply a boundary error not a case of Adverse Possession. In that case, the dispute over the correct position of the boundary may be easier to resolve than an adverse possession case. The intention of the original buyers and sellers will be of great importance as will the physical position of fences, posts and walls. Any previous agreement on the position of the boundary may be enforceable.
Principles Of ‘Squatter’s Rights’?
1 Squatting on Unregistered Land
If the land is ‘unregistered’ then usually 12 years possession of the land gives the squatter ownership of the land, under the Limitation Act 1980. However, in some cases it may be necessary to squat on certain types of land for up to 30 years; or even 60 years if it is foreshore land, for example.
The length of time you need to prove you have possessed the land can depend on who the owner of the disputed land is. The problem is that, if you don’t know who the owner is, it can be difficult to find out how long you have to show possession of the land before you can claim any rights over it.
For example, if you squat on land that is legally owned by a limited company the usual period that you need to prove you have possessed the land for is 12 years. However, if the company goes into liquidation within this period then the period of possession you will need to prove (now against the Crown) becomes 30 years.
Also, although you might initially persuade the Land Registry to give you Possessory title if you can prove 12 years’ possession of the land, the true owner might then appear and try to claim the land back. You might be able to get Title Insurance to cover the loss of the value of land if you are unsuccessful in defeating their claim.
2 Squatting on Registered Land (starting before October 1991)
Normally, if the land is registered and you can prove a continuous period of possession of the land for 12 years expiring before October 2003 then the old Land Registration Act 1925 rules apply (which are similar to squatting on unregistered land described above). So, assuming the land is registered at the Land Registry and we can find out who the registered legal owner is, we may be able to work out whether you need to prove 12, 30 or even 60 years’ possession by that date in order to make a claim.
If you can prove you have had possession of the land for the right period of time, then you should have a good case, unless the land or the owner happens to be a special case. You could initially make a detailed application to the Land Registry with all the supporting evidence.The Land Registry will notify the Registered Owner who would be asked if he agrees with your claim. Unfortunately, he may dispute your claim and you would then have to go to Court to prove your case. This is likely to mean uncertainty, delay and the risk of paying the legal owner’s costs if you lose your claim.
3 Squatting on Registered Land (starting after October 1991)
If the land you are claiming is registered land but you CANNOT show that you have had possession of it for a period of 12 years expiring before October 2003 but you CAN show 10 years possession up to today’s date, you might be able to make a claim under the new rules set out in the Land Registration Act 2002.
However, you are much less likely to be successful applying under the new rules. In fact, under the new rules it is impossible to get squatter’s rights over some types of registered land and against some types of land owner. In other cases you might have to show possession for more than 10 years and even up to 30 or 60 years.
If we consider that you have a good case you can make an application to the Land Registry. The Land Registry will send your application to the registered owner, who will be asked whether they accept your claim to the land. If the registered owner agrees to let you have the land then you will become the new registered owner.
Unfortunately, under the new rules, if the registered owner formally objects to your application within a set period of time your application will normally fail. The Land Registry will then reject your application. The registered owner can then eject you from the land, even though you might have been there for 10 or 20 years.
However, in general terms, if the registered owner doesn’t eject you from the land and you squat on the land for a further two years, you can then make a further application. This is more likely to be successful.
Boundary disputes are not common but it is important to be realistic if one does arise. Do not place too much emphasis on Land Registry plans but consider all the information you have, and look for a sensible solution.
Also bear in mind that when you come to sell the house, you may have to disclose to a purchaser that there has been a boundary dispute, whether you have won or lost your case. This might put off any potential purchaser.
The information in this guide is for general guidance only and specific advice will be needed on each case. If you want advice on the position of your boundaries, first look at the questions on the next page, since answers to them will help us to give you the best advice.