04 August 2014
Squatters can take legal title to a property
In a decision that will surprise many landowners, the High Court (Best v Chief Land Registrar) has ruled that a squatter can take legal title to a property even though he had occupied it unlawfully since squatting in residential premises was made a criminal offence.
The way the legislation is worded, squatting in a residential property became a criminal offence on 1 September 2012 and continuing squatters became criminals on that date.
The case was brought as a result of the Land Registry adopting the practice of refusing to register title obtained by 'adverse possession' (squatters' rights) for applications made on or after 1 September 2012, on the ground that the possession of the property was unlawful and therefore could not give a good ground for the registration of the title.
There is a long established legal principle which prohibits the acquisition of legal rights through the commission of criminal offences, which the Land Registry considered justified its stance.
Perhaps surprisingly, the High Court ruled that this principle was not engaged and that the law of adverse possession, which gives the occupier of a property the right to have the legal title transferred to them if appropriate conditions are met, depended on the possession of the property alone, not the legality of its possession.
In this sense, possession means unfettered and open occupation without force.
The message for landlords who have properties occupied by squatters is that believing that the title cannot be transferred to them because their possession is unlawful is not justified. Once a registered property has been squatted in for ten years, the occupier can then apply for the transfer of the title.