Judge rules in favour of squatter

Updated: 

The propertyNick Ansell/PA Wire

A squatter has been told he has the right to live in a property he first entered and started renovating in 2000 - but it's not over yet.

Keith Best applied to register title to 35 Church Road, Newbury Park, Ilford, east London - a three-bedroom, semi-detached house. His application was on the basis that he had been living there (known as being "in adverse possession" or "squatter's title") for a period of 10 years.

Best entered the property and began working on it, repairing the roof in 2000, clearing the garden and making the place "wind and watertight". As time went on, he replaced ceilings and skirting boards, and electric and heating fitments. He plastered and painted walls. He treated the place as his own from 2001, although he moved in in January 2012.

Mr Best had made a statutory declaration that, in 1997, he had been working on a nearby property, the owner of which had told him that the last occupier of "empty and vandalised" number 35, Doris May Curtis, had died and her son had not been seen since 1996.

There had been no disputes about his possession of the property. But he occupied it without anyone's consent.

However, when he applied for 'squatter's title' the Chief Land Registrar blocked his application because section 144(1) of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPOA) has made residential squatting a crime, instead of just a civil offence, since September 2012.

Mr Justice Ouseley, sitting at London's High Court, ruled the registrar's decision was "founded on an error of law" and must be quashed, even though Mr Best had been committing an offence of criminal trespass since section 144 came into force.

However the judge gave the registrar permission to appeal after describing Mr Best as a "guinea pig" test case expected to affect many other similar cases.

The judge declared section 144 was not intended to deal with the old laws of adverse possession but was designed to help people, like those who went on holiday and found that squatters had moved in to their home in their absence.

He said: "The purpose of section 144 was to help those who needed rather more immediate and committed police action on the side of the property owner than an action for civil trespass alone afforded".

Section 144 enabled the criminal law to deal with "perhaps numbers of squatters who refused to depart, and exploited the civil law's delays to fortify the house against the owner, to use his possessions as his own, at a cost to him (the owner) which was unlikely to be recovered."

Mr Best made his title registration application in November 2012 under the provisions of the Land Registration Act 2002 after a decade of squatting.

The judge ruled the purpose of section 144 of LASPOA "was not to throw a spanner into the delicate workings of the 2002 Act, with random effects on the operation of adverse possession, all without a backward glance.

"Parliament should be taken to have thought that the public policy advantages of adverse possession at common law meant that the mere fact that the adverse possession was based on criminal trespass did not and should not preclude a successful claim for adverse possession".

Public policy advantages are said to include the fact that adverse possession prevents the public and economic disadvantages of land remaining unused and unclaimed.

The judge said, before any claim could arise for adverse possession, 10 or 12 years would have had to pass "without effective action by owner or by an enforcement authority, whether in civil or criminal proceedings".

The judge said the effect of his test case ruling should be stayed to give the chief land registrar an opportunity to appeal as a matter of urgency to the Court of Appeal.

He said: "I don't know how many other cases are in the pipeline but there are indications that there are many, rather than one or two."

He said Mr Best was "in the unfortunate position of being a guinea pig".

He ordered the registrar to make an interim legal costs payment of £100,000 to Mr Best, whose legal team brought the action on a no win, no fee basis.

Total costs are unofficially estimated at about £200,000.

After today's ruling, Mr Best said he did not wish to comment.

His solicitor, Riz Majid, head of civil litigation at London law firm Neumans, welcomed the judge's decision, saying: "This judgment recognises that making residential squatting a criminal offence was not intended to impact on the law of adverse possession, which is an old and quirky law.

"Adverse possession has been around since at least Roman times.

"Roman Law allowed someone who was in possession of a good without title to become the lawful proprietor if the original owner didn't show up after some time.

"The modern law of adverse possession began with the Real Property Limitation Acts 1833.

"It is a quirky law that benefits the economy because unused and unclaimed land and property gets recycled back into use.

"This judgment allows that to happen."

Another three-bedroom property in the Church Road area has been on the market with an asking price of £395,000.

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