Government to compensate for land taken by squatters' rights?

Ecovillage Network UK office at
Mon Nov 6 18:53:03 GMT 2006

Government fights to avoid paying for land taken by squatters' rights,,1940486,00.html

· Developer seeks millions in human rights court case
· Farmer acquired fields after 12 years of grazing
Clare Dyer, legal editor
Monday November 6, 2006

Taxpayers face a bill totalling millions of pounds to compensate a 
property development company for 23 hectares of prime land it lost to a 
farmer under "squatters' rights".

The money will be due unless the government succeeds in its appeal this 
week to the grand chamber of the European court of human rights in 

In what one lawyer has described as "Britain's biggest land grab", 
Caroline Graham, who farms at Henwick Manor in Thatcham, near Newbury in 
Berkshire, acquired the land, thought to be worth at least £10m, without 
paying a penny. Her husband, Michael, who died in a shooting accident in 
1998, had used it as grazing land for 12 years and successfully claimed 
title to it under the law of adverse possession - squatters' rights.

The Strasbourg court ruled by a 4-3 majority last November that the UK 
breached the human rights of Oxford developers JA Pye Ltd by not 
changing the ancient law sooner to protect landowners.

In an appeal that goes to the grand chamber of 17 judges on Wednesday, 
the government hopes to overturn the ruling, a rare example of a 
judgment upholding the human rights of a company rather than an 
individual. The fields adjoining Henwick Manor are in a prime position 
for future expansion between Newbury and Thatcham, where a jobs boom has 
created pressure on housing. Pye has obtained a valuation of £10m, 
taking into account the prospect of planning permission for development. 
With permission the land could be worth £21m.

The ancient law of adverse possession, described by Pye as "legalised 
robbery", allowed occupiers to claim property as their own if they 
occupied it for 12 years without the owner taking possession. The 
government finally changed the law to protect property owners in 2002 
after local authorities in London lost valuable houses to squatters, but 
the change was not retrospective.

The Grahams originally occupied the land under a grazing agreement with 
Pye but in 1984 the company refused a further agreement because it 
wanted to develop the land and was advised that it should have the land 
"in hand" ready for development. The Grahams continued to use it and in 
1997 Mr Graham registered cautions at the land registry claiming to have 
acquired title by squatters' rights.

Legal action followed, which the Grahams initially won in the high 
court. The ruling was overturned by the court of appeal, but the house 
of lords ruled in the Grahams' favour, a decision Lord Bingham, the 
senior law lord, said he had reached "with no enthusiasm".

He stressed that the Grahams were not at fault. "The Grahams have acted 
honourably throughout. They sought rights to graze or cut grass on the 
land after the summer of 1984, and were quite prepared to pay. When Pye 
failed to respond they did what any other farmer in their position would 
have done: they continued to farm the land."

The Strasbourg judges ruled by four to three that the company's right to 
enjoyment of its property was breached by the UK's failure to change the 
law to protect landowners. Where land was registered, they said, it was 
"difficult to see any justification for a legal rule which led to such 
an unjust result".

The result for the company was "one of exceptional severity", the judges 
added, declaring the taking of property in the public interest without 
payment of compensation was justified only in exceptional circumstances.

If the government loses the appeal arguments are expected over how much 
compensation it should pay. Government lawyers contended at the original 
Strasbourg hearing that public funds should not be used "to indemnify a 
corporate property developer against the consequences of its own 
incompetence". It said the company's loss should not be put at much more 
than £1m, applying a discount for its failure over 12 years to protect 
its title to the land.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2006

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