In 2012, squatting in residential buildings in England and Wales became a criminal offence.
Before the law changed, a displaced occupier could call the police who had the power to arrest the trespasser, but the owners of empty properties were not protected as (unless damage was caused when entering) no crime was committed.
So does this mean no more ‘squatter’s rights?’
Well according to the Government, yes. However, the High Court has recently held that an adverse possession claim can be based on criminal trespass.
In the year 2000, Mr. Best entered a vacant property and carried out works to it. He repaired the roof and carried out other works with the intention of making it his home, which he did in 2012.
However, when he applied to register the title in his name (on the grounds of adverse possession, i.e. that he had occupied the property as of right for over 10 years) the Land Registry refused, because his claim was based on a criminal trespass.
What did the Court say?
The Land Registry relied upon a 2009 case, where the Court of Appeal ruled that it was impossible to adversely possess highway land because the act of possession involved the criminal offence of obstructing the highway.
However, the High Court said that there was not a general ‘criminal offence’ principle, and that in Best’s cases the usual public interest principle underlying adverse possession claims (that title should not be left uncertain in the face of long possession) applied.
What does that mean?
The law has always been that if you occupy someone else’s land for long enough without their consent you may be able to acquire title, as, if land has been abandoned by its owner for many years, it is in the public interest to allow the title to pass.
The Court did not think that Parliament intended to undermine this principle when the law changed in 2012. It said that the law was changed in 2012 to help residential property owners who needed immediate police action to remove squatters, and it wasn‘t intended to disrupt the existing and long established adverse possession regime.
What about Mr. Best?
Mr. Best is not out of the woods yet. The owner of the property died in the 1990s and her son has not been seen for many years, but her personal representatives could still object to his adverse possession claim, which could lead to further arguments in Court.
Where does this leave us?
Owners of vacant residential property should remain alive to the risk of adverse possession claims if a property is going to be empty for a long period of time. The criminal offence created in 2012 will assist, but the owner needs to notice that the property has been occupied and call the police in the first place!
It’s also worth repeating that the criminal offence doesn’t extend to commercial premises or open land and it won’t catch tenants who overstay, as they did not enter as a trespasser in the first place.