The Best Result Yet for Squatters
Published: 26 February 2015
Best v Chief Land Registrar:
With a big fanfare, legislation was introduced in 2012 to make squatting in residential premises a criminal offence. From that time on, it has been punishable by a fine of up to £5,000 or imprisonment of up to 6 months. This legislation does not apply to commercial premises.
The new laws have seen a drop in squatting in residential properties – in particular a lessening of the problem of homeowners returning home from holiday to find their home occupied by squatters and the police declining to act as "the matter is a civil one." It did however inevitably lead to a consequential increase in squatting in commercial premises. Commercial landowners are still faced with the very onerous task and cost of issuing court proceedings to bring an enforcement action.
However, one unanswered question following the introduction of the new law concerned whether the criminalising of trespass by "living in" a residential building, has prevented time running for applications for registration of title by adverse possession, so-called "squatter's rights," to registered land.
Unfortunately, no. The answer is that the squatter’s ability to claim adverse possession after a period of long user (usually 10 or 12 years) is completely unaffected by the introduction of the new criminal offences. The issue was recently ruled upon by the Court of Appeal in the case of Best v Chief Land Registrar  (after the squatter was successful in an earlier High Court decision).
The Chief Land Registrar had decided that the newly introduced criminal offences did stop time running in an adverse possession claim. Mr Best, the Claimant, who would probably otherwise have been registered as the proprietor of residential property in Newbury Park, challenged this.
Mr Best heard about an abandoned property when he was working on another house on the same street in Newbury Park in 1997. The owner was deceased. He entered the property, did work to it including repairing the roof in the year 2000, clearing the garden and taking other steps to make it wind and watertight. Over time, he replaced ceilings and skirting boards, and electric and heating fitments; he plastered and painted walls. He did this intending to make it his permanent residence. He moved in at the end of January 2012. He said that he had treated the house as his own since 2001.
There had been no disputes about his possession of the property. But he occupied it without anyone's consent. So, Mr Best has been living in the building as a trespasser, and had been in breach of the criminal law as from 1 September 2012, when the new law came into force.
As ever the detailed arguments put forward and the reasoning of the Court is relatively complex but some of the key points are these:
- There was no indication within the legislation that the law of adverse possession would be affected by the introduction of the criminal offence.
- The public policy reasoning for making squatting in residential premises was to prevent, deter and punish short term squatting.
- It was not intended to deal with the separate issue of long term squatting, where a squatter makes use of the land over many years.
- The public policy reasoning for continuing to allow squatters following a period of long user to acquire title to land (after the overhaul of adverse possession laws in 2002) is, instead, to prevent neglected and abandoned land from becoming disused. It remains controversial but the law is designed to allow land to ultimately be put to use.
- The two regimes did not in any event overlap precisely – the new criminal offence relates to "living" in a residential property whereas adverse possession applies where a party is "in possession" of land – depending on the circumstancesthis can be achieved by: fencing off land; grazing cattle on it; for example. It depends on the land in question.
On a considered analysis the Court’s reasoning is sound, but that will not stop many instinctively feeling like this is the wrong result - especially those who suffer from claims for adverse possession.
Certainly, the outcome adds a different dimension to the suggestion that crime doesn’t always pay.
The contents of this article are intended for general information purposes only and shall not be deemed to be, or constitute legal advice. We cannot accept responsibility for any loss as a result of acts or omissions taken in respect of this article.