In September 2012 the government enacted legislation making it a criminal offence to trespass in a residential building. However, it was unclear how this change would affect claims of “adverse possession”, where a squatter after several years occupation can claim title to the property he has occupied. A recent decision has now given us the answer.
It has long been a principle of English law that a claim will not be enforced by the courts where it has arisen from illegal conduct. For this reason, following the change in the law in September 2012, the Land Registry started rejecting claims of adverse possession in relation to residential property.
In Best v The Chief Land Registrar (2014) the court was asked to decide whether the new legislation meant that claims of adverse possession could no longer be brought in respect of residential property. In doing so it had to weigh up, on the one hand, not allowing a person committing criminal activity to benefit from their illegal conduct and, on the other hand, the risk of ‘sterilising’ land use by allowing property to fall into disuse and disrepair and for title to land to be left uncertain despite a person enjoying long periods of possession without objection.
The court held that the new law does not prevent a squatter claiming title by adverse possession to a residential property.
The decision serves as a warning to landowners that the criminalisation of squatting in residential property does not prevent a trespasser acquiring title to their land. However, where land is registered, there are still a number of protections under property law against losing title to trespassers. In general, if a trespasser claims title to your land, the Land Registry will notify you and you can defeat their application if you respond appropriately.