What are Squatters’ Rights?

It is possible to acquire the ownership of property or a piece of land by virtue of long, continual and uninterrupted use – without paying a penny for it. This is known, in law, as ‘adverse possession’ – and is more commonly called ‘squatters’ rights’.

Squatters’ rights are based on the principle that if the legal owner of the land or property does not evict a squatter from their land within a certain time period; or does not disturb someone else’s use of the land or property – their legal ownership may be lost to the ‘squatter’.

A common situation where someone becomes the legal owner of land by virtue of adverse possession is through their sole, uninterrupted use of a strip of land adjacent to their own land, over many years.

How do I become the legal owner of the land?

To acquire formal legal ownership (‘title’) to the land or property, you need to apply to HM Land Registry for registration of your name as the new legal owner. This requires you to prove your right to be formally recognised as the legal owner.

How do I prove adverse possession?

To satisfy the Land Registry, you must produce evidence that you – or you together with a succession of previous ‘squatters’ – have occupied land or property that is registered at the Land Registry continuously and uninterrupted for 10 years. If the land is unregistered, the requisite time period is 12 years.

You must also show that you (and any predecessors) conducted yourself as the land owners for the whole of that time period, and that you did not have permission from the actual owner to do so.

This requires you to prove:

  • Factual possession of the land
  • An intention to possess
  • The possession of the land has been ‘adverse’

You will need to provide detailed formal statement of truth, sworn in front of a solicitor, setting out all the circumstances of your use of the land, and similar statements from anyone else who can assist in your application, such as neighbours and relatives. The statements will need to include plans of the relevant land and how it relates to your existing property (if any) and neighbouring land.

What amounts to factual possession?

You must show an appropriate degree of physical control over the land. This could be physical, such as the erection and maintenance of fencing; building on the land; enclosing and using the land as farmland or for keeping vehicles; repairs or applications for planning permission to heighten existing boundaries; and leasing the land to a third party.

You will need to explain when your ‘possession’ started, all the facts relevant to your application, and whether there were any breaks in your occupation/possession.

How I do show ‘intention’ to possess the land?

You will need to demonstrate that you have tried ‘to exclude the world at large’, including the actual legal owner. Your explanation of the factual possession will most likely cover the issue of intent. In addition, if you have spent money on the land or property, this is an important factor which will help to prove your intention to possess it.

How do I show the possession is ‘adverse’?

The possession is ‘adverse’ where you acquire the land in a manner inconsistent with the wishes of the paper owner. This means if you had permission of the legal owner to use the land, or if the legal owner knows of your exclusive use of the land, then the possession is not adverse – and you cannot claim legal title to it.

Can the legal owner ‘stop the clock’?

The legal owner of the estate can stop time running between successive adverse possessors by physically preventing your occupation or possession of the property. This could be by way of maintenance, or removing a boundary erected by you, the squatter – in fact, anything that amounts to interfering with your use of the land or property.

In addition, the owner may start formal proceedings to recover the land once they have received notification of your application to be registered as the legal owner. Proceedings must be started within two years. If the actual owner does not follow this through, the squatter may then be registered as the legal owner.

Will my application be successful?

If no one with an interest in the property objects to your application you will generally be entitled to be registered as the registered proprietor of the property. Your class of registration will be ‘possessory title’ – a lesser class than ‘absolute’ title because you do not have the documentary evidence of your ownership. However, after a certain time period, you can apply to have your title ‘upgraded’ to absolute.

If your application for registration as the legal owner is refused, but you remain on the land as a squatter, you may make another application after two more years have elapsed.

Article written by...
Lucy Trevelyan LLB
Lucy Trevelyan LLB

Lucy on LinkedIn

Lucy graduated in law from the University of Greenwich, and is also an NCTJ trained journalist. A legal writer and editor with over 20 years' experience writing about the law.