As our readers will be aware, it became a criminal offence to ‘squat’ in a residential building from 1 September 2012. This change in the law was brought about by section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO 2012). There was concern at the time as to how section 144 would mesh with statute and the case law on adverse possession.

The recent High Court decision in Best v Chief Land Registrar [2014] EWHC 1370 (Admin), has grappled with this problem and held that a squatter in a residential property could acquire title to it through adverse possession in spite of section 144 of LAPSO 2012.

Background facts

In 1997, the claimant, Mr Best, became aware that a derelict residential property at 35 Church Road, Newbury Park appeared to have been abandoned. After speaking with neighbours, he discovered that it had indeed been unoccupied since the death of the owner. Over the following years, Mr Best proceeded to secure the property and carried out extensive works, including repairing the roof, clearing the garden and replacing internal fixtures and fittings. Mr Best moved into the property in January 2012.

Pursuant to Schedule 6 of the Land Registration Act 2002 (LRA 2002), Mr Best then submitted an application to the Land Registry to become the registered owner claiming to have been in adverse possession of the property for the necessary ten year period. The application was rejected on the grounds that the Chief Land Registrar considered that section 144 LAPSO 2012 applied. This meant that Mr Best could not rely on any period of adverse possession occurring after the LASPO 2012 came into force. Effectively, Mr Best was deemed to be committing a criminal offence by living in a residential property as a trespasser.

Mr Best made a claim for judicial review of the decision.

The High Court’s decision

The court considered the issues thrown up by the juxtaposing prescriptive rights under the LRA 2002 and the unhelpfully worded section 144 LASPO 2012 before taking a common sense approach. It decided that section 144 LAPSO 2012 had been created to give the police more powers when dealing with residential squatters by making squatting in residential buildings a criminal offence. However, the court decided that this did not affect the law relating to prescriptive rights. Accordingly, Mr Best’s application under Schedule 6 of LRA 2002 was allowed to proceed.

Comment

The court's decision does not mean that Mr Best has been able to acquire title to the property. The decision instead triggers the two year registration period in which the property's owner is able to object and prevent the applicant obtaining title.