Carter Jonas
Carter Jonas

Crime can legally pay for squatters

A recent Appeal Court decision has brought about the unpalatable truth that in some instances crime can pay quite legally.

It follows a ruling in Best v. Chief Land Registrar [2015] EWCA Civ 17 that a criminal trespasser can acquire title to land via adverse possession.

The Court of Appeal upheld a decision which allowed a squatter to obtain title to land by adverse possession, despite the trespass becoming a criminal offence pursuant to section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 if the trespasser "lives" in a residential building (squatting in a commercial property remains purely a civil matter).

The case raises a wider issue as the situation becomes further complicated by the concept of land utility and the potential public benefit to be gained by allowing a system of adverse possession to ensure land is not abandoned or sterilised.

In Best, the Court sided with the criminal trespasser because it held that Parliament did not intend for the Act to adversely affect adverse possession. The Court also declined to be drawn into a debate about adverse possession dovetailing into the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 and how it might apply to criminal trespass and adverse possession.

It is fair to say that the limited criminalisation of trespass threw a cat amongst the pigeons in respect of how it would apply to adverse possession. The Court of Appeal has given a very clear indication that the criminalisation of trespass is not to impact on adverse possession. The result, which some might regard as unpalatable, is that a squatter can live as a criminal trespasser in a property and then claim ownership of that property.

The ruling means that owners of residential buildings need to be aware of who is living in them and under what circumstances.

Prior to the coming into force of the Land Registration Act 2002, a squatter could acquire the right to be registered as proprietor of a registered estate if they had been in adverse possession of the land for a minimum of 12 years. But The Land Registration Act 2002 created a new regime that applies only to registered land and makes it more likely that a registered proprietor will be able to prevent an application for adverse possession of their land being completed.

The situation differs with regard to unregistered land. To be clear about the law on adverse possession, more information can be found by clicking here.

Christopher D'OlleyMRICS


Christopher D'Olley is a Rural Partner in the Winchester office. He is a Chartered Surveyor and Fellow of the Central Association of Agricultural Valuers, with over 30 years experience. Work undertake...

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