In a ground-breaking decision, which represents very bad news for private property owners, a builder who spotted an opportunity and took over a long-empty home more than ten years ago has struck a significant blow for squatters' rights.
The High Court ruled that the trespassing builder's adverse possession rights had survived, even though his occupation of the house became a criminal offence on 1 September 2012 when the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPOA) – which for the first time criminalised squatting – came into force.
The builder was doing some work on a nearby property in 1997 when he heard that the owner of the empty and heavily vandalised house had died. He entered the property and carried out extensive renovation works, including repairing the roof, putting in new ceilings and electrics and much plastering and painting.
He moved into the property in January 2012 and, in November that year, applied to be registered as the property's owner, claiming that he had 'treated it as his own since 2001'. However, the Chief Land Registrar refused his application on the basis that he had been committing a criminal offence since LASPOA became law.
The Court acknowledged the fundamental principle of law that 'rights should not be derived from criminal acts'. However, in overturning the Registrar's decision, it noted the powerful public interest in ensuring that long-vacant homes are returned to worthwhile use and that those who have 'long been in undisputed possession' of private property should be entitled to treat it as their own.
Noting that there was no evidence that Parliament had even considered the impact of LASPOA on adverse possession rights, the Court noted that the law sought to 'balance the interests of the dispossessed private owner' against those of the state in preventing uncertainty of title and long-term 'sterilisation' of land. LASPOA had been introduced to help property owners who needed 'more immediate and committed police action' against trespassers and not to 'throw a spanner into the delicate workings' of the law of adverse possession.
Directing fresh consideration of the builder's application, the Court found that the Registrar's refusal to recognise his adverse possession rights was 'founded on an error of law'.