Experts at Birmingham law firm Williamson & Soden are warning landowners to be vigilant about managing agreements for people to be on their land or property or risk losing their title.
In two recent cases landowners lost their land and property because they did nothing to evict the people who claimed civil squatter’s rights over a 12 year period.
In the first case a house in Bow, east London, was the subject of a dispute between owners the Ofulues, who retained the house after they moved to Nigeria, and the Bosserts, who moved into the property in 1981.
Despite several requests the Bosserts refused to move out and when solicitors were instructed to recover the property in 1987, the Bosserts counterclaimed that they were tenants and had paid the rates and carried out repairs because they had been offered a lease.
When Mr Bossert died in 1996 the Ofulues did not continue with their legal action but started proceedings once again in 2003 after they returned to live in England.
The Court of Appeal ruled in favour of Mrs Bossert, agreeing that the house had passed to her under the rules of adverse possession because she and her husband had occupied it for some 22 years.
“This case is of particular interest because squatters have traditionally had to prove that their occupation of land was without the landowner’s permission and that they wanted to keep the legal owner out,” says property specialist Louisa Jakeman.
“It emphasises yet again that landowners owe it to themselves to stay informed about who is occupying their land and why.”
Another case concerned thousands of acres of foreshore and river bed on the Welsh side of the River Severn, which would be worth millions of pounds if plans to build wind farms and tidal barrages on the Severn Estuary go ahead.
Proceedings were brought by Cardiff businessman Mark Roberts, who had purchased the paper title ‘Lord Marcher of Magor’ in 1997 and claimed this gave him rights to the land. The Crown Estate Commissioners, who administer land owned by the Queen, claimed adverse possession, on the basis that the Crown had occupied the land without challenge for centuries.
In a groundbreaking ruling the High Court appeal judges determined there is no constitutional principle or rule of law to prevent the Crown claiming squatters’ rights, where its original entry on to the land was not lawful.
“These judgements serve as a warning that landowners must manage their land properly – they simply cannot afford to sit on what they think are their rights,” adds Mrs Jakeman.
“In both cases the 12 year rule was used successfully because in 12 years the true owner did not attempt to evict the squatters.
Landowners who want to allow people on to their land are advised to have a proper, preferably written, agreement to document the terms of the occupation, and they then need to monitor the situation when the agreement runs out and make sure that the occupiers leave.”