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A Line on a Map Can Never Define a Boundary with Pinpoint Accuracy

A line on a map, however finely drawn, can never be narrow or precise enough to identify a boundary with absolute accuracy. As one case concerning a footpath showed, that inescapable fact lies at the heart of innumerable disputes.

The footpath ran between steep banks and appeared as a black line on maps dating back to the early 19th century and on the modern definitive map for the area. A couple who owned a neighbouring house claimed so-called squatters’ rights in respect of that part of a bank that adjoined their back garden.

A local authority disputed the couple’s ownership of the bank on the basis that it formed part of the footpath. There was no dispute that, if that was the case, the couple’s application to register the bank in their names had to fail as a matter of law in that squatters’ rights have no application to public highways.

In ruling on the matter, the First-tier Tribunal (FTT) acknowledged that lines on maps were insufficient to resolve the dispute one way or the other. In deciding whether the bank formed part of the footpath, it was therefore necessary to resort to oral evidence and the physical features of the bank, including tree lines and fencing arrangements.

In upholding the couple’s arguments, the FTT found that the council had failed to establish that the banks of the footpath had been created by its use by livestock over very many years. Fencing or hedging at the top of the banks for much of their length was as likely to be there to prevent falling accidents as to delineate a boundary.

Throughout their ownership of their home, the couple had cut back vegetation on the bank and treated it as their own. Without the council’s consent, they had been in factual possession of the bank for more than the required 20-year period and they were thus entitled to register their title to it.