Adverse possession and registered land – limiting squatters’ rights

In the recent case of Dowse and Another v City of Bradford Metropolitan District Council [2020] UKUT 202 (LC) the Upper Tribunal (Lands Chamber) (following a fully remote hearing conducted over Skype for Business) highlighted how the right of ‘adverse possession’, which squatters have been able to claim in certain circumstances, has been severely limited.

Before 13th October 2003, if a squatter with the necessary intention to possess, occupied land with a sufficient degree of occupation and control for 12 years then they could (subject to some exceptions) gain registered title to the land through adverse possession.

The Land Registration Act 2002 dramatically restricted this right. The time period that land had to be possessed for in order for an occupier to qualify for a claim for adverse possession was reduced to 10 years. In addition, it was made far easier to defeat a claim for adverse possession for registered land because when an adverse possession application is made, the Land Registry contacts the proprietor to give them a chance to respond (a key reason why addresses on title registers should be kept up to date).

If the registered owner follows the objection process, then the squatter can succeed only on three grounds set out in statute. The relevant one in Dowse was the ‘adjacent land’ exemption. For this ground to succeed the following must be made out by the squatter (as set out in Schedule 6 of the LRA 2002):
(a) the land in question is adjacent to land belonging to the applicant,
(b) the exact boundary line between the two had not been determined,
(c) for at least ten years prior to the application, the applicant (or any predecessor in title) reasonably believed that the land in question belonged to them, and

(d) the land had been registered more than one year prior to the of the application.

In the case of Dowse, Mr and Mrs Dowse claimed approximately two acres of land, which bordered land they owned (the garden of a residential property). The Council’s land formed part of a primary school, with the area in question bisected from the main site by a railway line.

It was submitted by Mr and Mrs Dowse that the ‘adjacent’ requirement meant that the only condition which needed to be satisfied was that they owned land which shared a boundary with the land claimed. The Judge decided that the area of land claimed could not all be said to be adjacent to their land, as only a small part of it was. For the ‘adjacent land’ ground to be made out “the whole (or substantially the whole) of the disputed land would have to be capable of being described as ‘adjacent to’ the applicant’s land for the condition to be satisfied”. Of course, this leaves open other questions of interpretation.

The intention of the Land Registration Act 2002 was to restrict adverse possession to cases where there were genuine boundary disputes (in cases where people were relying on the ‘adjacent land’ ground), and the Upper Tribunal therefore was of the opinion that the ground could not apply to greater tracts of land, even where parts of it were adjacent to the Claimants’ land.

This case highlights how the doctrine of adverse possession in respect of registered land is greatly restricted by the LRA 2002 and that the adjacent land exemption is likely to apply in very limited circumstances. Those seeking to make a claim for adverse possession will wish to seek legal advice on the strength of their claim but this case reaffirms that there are only a few defined situations where the doctrine of adverse possession will apply.

For more information or assistance please contact Ben on 0121-233-6900.