I have been looking after a spare piece of land next to my house for a number of years. Do I have any rights over it?
ASK THE EXPERT
A. This is really a matter for a solicitor. The law governing this sort of thing underwent some major revisions a few years ago. Up until then, all you needed to prove was that you had occupied the land for a period of 12 years without any challenge from the legal owners. After that, you could claim possessory rights over it (not quite as good as full title, but the next best thing – particularly if you took out suitable indemnity insurance).
Now, things are rather more complicated, and the simple 12-year threshold no longer applies. You can understand why. Squatters’ rights – which is effectively what we are talking about here – were always something of an anomaly in modern-day society, and it was only a matter of time before some Government or other reined them in.
So, what is the current situation? Well, that depends. When you say you have been “looking after” the land, what exactly do you mean? If it is simply a piece of unfenced ground that you have kept a horse on, for example, then you have no rights over it at all. To claim any such rights, you must have fenced it in or formally delineated the boundaries of the plot in some other way – and preferably done something else to improve it as well, such as landscaped it.
However, the real crucial point is whether the legal owners of the land are aware of your occupying it, or not. If they are, and they have agreed to it – or even if they have simply condoned it – then they will be deemed to have exercised their right of ownership, and you yourself will therefore have no legal rights whatsoever.
On the other hand, if despite your very best efforts you have failed to locate the legal owners; if you have subsequently fenced the land in and landscaped it; and if in all that time no-one else has claimed ownership - then you may well have a case.
That’s a lot of “ifs” – which is why, as I said at the beginning, the only real advice I can give you is - consult a solicitor.