Also referred to as adverse possession, squatters rights arise when someone occupies land that is not theirs for a certain period of time.
Squatters’ rights most often arise over pieces of land adjacent to property owned by the squatter, such as grass verges, strips of land used for parking or areas adjoining a garden as well as over more substantial property and land.
Emotions can often run high in dealing with disputed areas of land and attempts to take adverse possession. If you find yourself in this situation, you are advised to seek legal advice early on. An experienced property disputes solicitor will often be able to help you resolve matters without the need for protracted legal proceedings.
What are squatters’ rights?
To be eligible to claim adverse possession or squatters’ rights, you will need to prove the following:
- You, or several squatters in succession, have occupied the land in question continuously for ten years, if the land is registered with HM Land Registry. Where the land is unregistered land, the occupation will need to have continued for twelve years
- You and any previous squatters acted as owners of the property throughout that time. You will need to show that you had an intention to possess the land and that you had exclusive possession of the land, referred to as adverse possession. This means both physical possession of the land as well as the intention to possess it.
- You and any previous squatters did not have the owner’s permission to be on the land at any time, for example as a tenant or someone renting the land.
How to claim adverse rights
An application for possession can be made as soon as the ten or twelve years of adverse occupation, ie. continuous occupation without consent of the owner, has passed.
You will need to provide evidence that you were physically in possession of the land and that you dealt with it as if it were your own. This could be by showing that you have fenced, mown or otherwise maintained it.
To demonstrate that you held adverse possession, you will usually need to show that you held the land wholly for your benefit and that others were excluded.
HM Land Registry application for adverse possession
The first step is to fill in the Land Registry’s form ADV1: registration of a person in adverse possession. This should be accompanied by a statement of truth on form ST1. You will need to provide a range of information, including the following:
- A plan of the land in question
- The title registration number of the land, if it is registered
- The period of adverse possession, to include any gaps in possession
- The acts that have been carried out on the land and use of the land, to demonstrate adverse possession
- Details of any enclosure of the land, to include who put up any fences or other boundary structures
- Who has the key to any lockable gate to the land
- Details of any tenancy or licence which was granted in respect of the land
- The name and address of the person believed to be the owner
- Details of contact that has been made with the owner
Once your application has been received by HM Land Registry, they will send a notice to the landowner. They will then have 65 days in which to object.
Objecting to an adverse possession claim
The landowner can lodge an objection to an adverse possession claim.
It may be that the applicant has failed to prove that they have occupied the land for the required period, that they have not demonstrated exclusive possession or that they have had the landowner’s permission to be there, meaning the occupation was not adverse.
The landowner also has the option of serving a counternotice on the applicant, requiring them to prove one of the following points:
- That it would be inequitable or unconscionable for the squatter to be required to leave, referred to as estoppel
- That the squatter has some other right to the land that means they are entitled to own it
- That a reasonable mistake has been made as to the boundary of land, meaning that the squatter reasonably believed that they owned the land. This is the point that is most often relied on by those in adverse possession
How to avoid adverse possession claims
Making a successful claim for adverse possession as a long-term squatter is not easy, but as a land or property owner you are always advised to take action to reduce the risk of having to evict squatters or enter into legal action against someone who seeks to claim squatters rights. This is particularly important if you own unused or abandoned property.
The following will help you make it as difficult as possible for potential claimants:
- Make sure you visit your land regularly if you do not live there and inspect all areas of it for trespass and signs of occupation. Record your visits in a diary. You can also take photos to accompany the entries. Frequent visits will help you stay familiar with the property and spot any additions such as fencing or paving.
- If you do live at the property, make sure you record your own occupation of it from time to time, for example, if you have an open area of parking that others could potentially access, take photos of your own vehicle there.
- Take steps to enclose your land yourself to deter potential squatters.
- If you do find someone in occupation of your land in any way, you need to act quickly to have them removed. If a formal letter does not work, you can start possession proceedings. In any event, you are advised to seek legal advice at this stage to ensure you protect your interests.
- Speak to others with knowledge of the land, such as neighbours and previous owners, to try and establish when adverse occupation started.
If a dispute over the location of a boundary arises, you can ask a surveyor to prepare a professional report and plan, which could be used to support your case.
Disputes over property ownership can become entrenched if not dealt with quickly. If difficulties arise that you cannot resolve straightaway, you are strongly recommended to speak to an expert property dispute lawyer. It is quite often the case that a formal solicitors’ letter can prevent matters from degenerating.
At Lockings, we represent individuals seeking to establish or defend property rights. We have extensive experience in dealing with property disputes and we are often able to resolve matters without the need for litigation.
Contact our property dispute solicitors in Beverley, Hull and York
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