Under the law of adverse possession (‘squatter’s rights’), the legal ownership of land may be able to be claimed if it is occupied for a long period of time without the owner of the land taking steps to assert control over it.
A recent case shows that such a claim is unlikely to succeed where it arises through an administrative error. It dealt with a strip of land between two properties in London.
The land had originally been part of the property known as No 29 Milner Street, in Chelsea. When the adjoining property – No 31 Milner Street – was sold in 1986, the land belonging to No 29 (and which was shown as belonging to it in the title deeds registered at the Land Registry) was mistakenly also registered as being part of the property comprising No 31.
The error was compounded by another, in 2000, when the land was excluded from the title to No 29 whilst a computerised plan was being made of the property. The end result was that the owners of No 29 were, at least on paper, stripped of a piece of land in one of the most expensive areas in the country without any money having changed hands.
The owner of No 29 later realised the mistake and sought to have the strip removed from the title to No 31 and restored to No 29. The owner of No 31 opposed this, claiming that because her family had been in occupation of the land for more than 12 years (the then time limit) without opposition by the owner of No 29, they now had the right to claim ownership by adverse possession.
The case ended up in the Court of Appeal, which considered that during the period when the owners of No 31 were registered as the owners of the strip of land, their possession of it was lawful. They were not therefore in ‘adverse possession’ of it and could not claim title to it.