Builder wins landmark victory for squatters' rights

Tony Gosling tony at
Fri May 9 12:37:28 BST 2014

Builder wins landmark victory for squatters' rights

Builder Keith Best wins a landmark legal victory 
for squatters' rights as he is allowed to live in 
property he took over despite residential squatting being ''criminalised''

Keith Best applied to register title to the property (left) on

Keith Best applied to register title to the 
property (left) on Church Road, Newbury Park, Ilford Photo: NICK ANSELL/PA

By News agencies

12:57PM BST 07 May 2014

A squatter has won a landmark victory for 
''squatters' rights'' after seeking possession of 
a run-down property he has lived in and renovated 
- despite residential squatting being ''criminalised'' by the Government.

Keith Best applied to register title to 35 Church 
Road, Newbury Park, Ilford, east London, on the 
basis that he had been ''in adverse possession'' 
- also referred to as ''squatter's title'' - for 
a period of 10 years ending on the date he made his application.

The Chief Land Registrar blocked Mr Best's 
application relating to the three-bedroom, semi-detached house.

The registrar said he could not allow time to run 
for registration of title by adverse possession 
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.

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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''.

In the case of the 35 Church Road property, 
freehold title had been registered in the name of Doris May Curtis.

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, 
Mrs Curtis, had died and her son had not been seen since 1996.

Mr 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.

The judge said: ''He did this intending to make 
it his permanent residence. He moved in at the 
end of January 2012. He said that he had treated 
the house as his own since 2001.

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

He had been living in the property ''in breach of 
the criminal law'' since September 2012, when 
section 144 of LASPOA came into force.

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 the 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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