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Squatters' Rights Survive Criminalisation of Trespass

In a landmark decision with important implications for all landowners, the Court of Appeal has ruled that the criminalisation of trespass in 2012 had no impact on the law of adverse possession – more commonly known as ‘squatters’ rights’.

A builder spotted an opportunity in 1997 when he heard that the owner of an empty and heavily vandalised suburban home had died. He entered the property and carried out extensive renovation works. He moved into the house himself in 2012 and soon afterwards applied to be registered as its owner, on the basis that he had treated the property as his own since 2001.

In September 2012, the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012(LASPOA) – which for the first time criminalised squatting – came into force. The Chief Land Registrar refused the builder’s application, saying that he had been committing a criminal offence for two months before seeking registration.

In dismissing the Registrar’s appeal against an earlier decision to like effect, the Court ruled that the passage into law of LASPOA had not affected the builder’s rights. Whilst recognising the principle that ‘rights should not be derived from criminal acts’, the Court also stressed the public interest in ensuring that vacant homes are returned to use and that those who have long been in undisputed possession of private property should be entitled to treat it as their own.

The Court found that that, when enacting LASPOA, Parliament had not intended to produce ‘a collateral effect’ on the law of adverse possession. The decision meant that the Registrar would have to reconsider the builder’s application to be formally recognised as the property’s owner.