You own some land which is not registered at the Land Registry. You keep the title deeds under your mattress, where they are safe. You haven’t inspected your land in years but decide one day to register it, and ask your solicitor to deal with the formalities. The solicitor tells you that part of your land has already been registered to someone else. How can this be when you have the title deeds?

Land can be acquired by a party who is not its legal owner by squatting on it for a defined period of time, thereby dispossessing the paper owner.

All the squatter needs to do is prove:

  • Uninterrupted factual possession for the requisite period
  • Intention to possess (to exclude the world at large)

If successfully established, Land Registry may give the squatter a possessory title to the possessed land.

Can you wave your paper title and demand your land to be returned to its rightful owner?

For unregistered land: the effect of sections 15 and 17 of the Limitation Act 1980 is that the title of the owner of the land will be extinguished 12 years after the squatter first begins to fulfil the above conditions. Once the limitation period has run its course in respect of unregistered land, the paper owner's title is extinguished by operation of statute.

For registered land: ownership is derived from registration rather than possession. A squatter is entitled to apply for registration as proprietor of land after 10 years of adverse possession but the registered proprietor and certain others interested in the land will be notified of the squatter's application, allowing the opportunity to object.

In summary, the registered land regime offers increased protection to registered landowners against squatters. Therefore you may wish to consider:

  1. Making a voluntary application for first registration, if your land is unregistered
  2. Making sure your address is kept up-to-date, if your land is registered, should Land Registry ever be required to send notification of a particular application
  3. Formalising any third party occupation of your land, by way of a tenancy or licence for example