The law relating to squatters forms part of English ‘Land Law’ - one of the core “foundation subjects” studied by university Law students.
The Law which regulates our rights to land is important, yet incredibly complicated. This is because different people value land for many different reasons. For instance, land may represent a store of economic wealth (eg for someone who buys land as an investment); it may have emotional significance (eg when you occupy land as your home); it may be used purely to generate economic wealth (eg when land is rented out for business purposes); or it may be used to provide public amenities (eg a public park). Difficult legal questions may arise when these competing values come into conflict.
Imagine that an unmarried couple, Harriet and James, bought a house together 10 years ago. Their relationship has recently broken down. Harriet has moved out and wants the property to be sold, whereas James values the land as his home, and wishes to continue living there. How should we resolve this conflict between Harriet – who wishes to extract the economic value from the land – and James – who attaches emotional value to the land? This is the sort of difficult question that Land Law must address.
Adverse possession: some background information
In this topic we will be looking at the law of “adverse possession”, a body of rules which allows a squatter to acquire ownership of someone else’s land once the squatter has been in occupation for a certain period of time, without having to pay any compensation to the original owner. The fact that the law allows this might come as a surprise you. Indeed, for obvious reasons, this area of law has provoked strong media reactions. (To see this for yourself, do an internet search for ‘news squatters’ and you will see an array of news stories!) Some examples of successful claims by squatters include:
Harry Hallowes (Hampstead Heath, London)
In 1987, Harrow Hallowes built a shack on land owned by a nursing home, on the edge of Hampstead Heath in London, without the nursing home’s permission. After Harry had lived there for 12 years, he became the owner of the land on which his shack was built (worth several millions of pounds today). What do you think about this outcome? For examples of the media’s reaction, see:
• Daily Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1485517/Squatting-on-a-fortune.html
Jack Blackburn (Brixton, London)
Jack Blackburn’s case concerns a flat along this street in Brixton, which used to be owned by Lambeth London Borough Council.
In the 1980s, the Council had plans to regenerate the whole area, and so decided to leave the flat empty pending redevelopment. In 1988, Jack Blackburn broke into the flat, which by that time was derelict, set about renovating it, and made it his home. Twelve years later, the Court of Appeal decided that Jack had become the owner of the Council’s property. Similar properties are now worth over £500,000. What do you think about this outcome? For the media’s reaction to this case, see:
The law of adverse possession also has a role to play between neighbouring landowners. Imagine a situation where ‘Owner A’ has encroached upon a metre of land in the garden that technically belongs to his neighbour, ‘Owner B’. Here, once Owner A has occupied the extra land for the requisite number of years, the law of adverse possession may make him the owner. Can we justify this sort of outcome? Disputes between neighbours can be intense and potentially very ugly – especially where they concern the location of a boundary. Does the law of adverse possession help provide a satisfactory outcome?
For more information about squatting, you might like to look at ‘Squatters’ Advisory Service’ website.