An Englishman’s home is his castle except, of course, when it isn’t. And the old adage is never less true than when someone else is living there uninvited.
Adverse possession or trespass?
A squatter’s life isn’t all bad. If you can move into someone’s empty property, treat it as your own and stay there for more than ten years, there’s a fair chance you’ll be able to keep it if you trigger the requisite two year application period and pursue the application successfully.
On the other hand, you do run the risk of becoming a criminal by virtue of a law which has now been around for getting on for two years. This law criminalises residential squatting and targets anyone who has knowingly entered and occupied a residential building as a trespasser, intending to stay there.
But which principle prevails? Do you lose the right to claim title by adverse possession just because you have committed a criminal offence?
Just such a case has recently been considered in which a certain Mr Best fancied his chances of securing title to a property which he had lived in and improved significantly over the requisite period. It was potentially an interesting prospect – gain a property or go to prison.
Mr Best had already been defeated by the Land Registry: The Chief Land Registrar cancelled his application on the basis that Mr Best’s act of trespass during his period of adverse possession prevented him from being able to establish the basis for an application to register title under a law which impliedly required that the applicant’s possession should not have constituted a criminal offence.
A matter of public interest
The court, however, disagreed. Whilst it accepted that there is a fundamental principle ‘of public policy that a person should not be entitled to take advantage of his own criminal acts to create rights’ which a court should then sanction, it gave greater weight to the public interests lying behind enabling title to property to be acquired by adverse possession and application for registration. Good news, then, for squatters, although Mr Best still has to leap the hurdle of the registration process. He has, however, enabled the court to clarify what, on the face of it, are conflicting provisions and paved the way for future squatters to make claims to title on the basis of adverse possession.
Why does it matter?
If you own properties which you don’t personally occupy, you could well be at risk of losing them if you don’t ensure that they are not occupied by a third party, or at least only occupied with your consent and under a formal agreement. Time passes quickly and before you know it, it could be you opposing an application for registration of your property’s title by someone you never knew existed.
 For registered title. Where title is unregistered, application for registration may usually be made after 12 years’ possession.
 Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012