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Who says crime doesn’t pay?

Since 1 September 2012, it has been a criminal offence to squat in residential property. However, how does this interact with the right of a squatter to claim ownership by way of adverse possession where he has been in possession of the property for the requisite 10 years but squatting has subsequently been criminalised?

The interrelationship between these issues has been considered recently by the Court of Appeal in the case of Best v The Chief Land Registrar. In 1997 Mr Best took possession of an empty and vandalised house and undertook substantial improvement works.  From 2001, he treated the house as his own although he did not actually move into the property until January 2012.

Mr Best applied to the Land Registry to have the property registered in his name on the basis of adverse possession. However, the Registrar refused to allow the application on the ground that his occupation since September 2012 had been a criminal offence and he could not rely upon what were now criminal acts to found his claim.

Mr Best appealed to the High Court, who found in his favour. The case then went to the Court of Appeal which again sided with Mr Best. The view of the Court of Appeal was that there was no general rule that criminal acts could never be relied upon to support a claim. Rather, the public policy considerations needed to be weighed up on both sides. In this case, the public policy objective of the new criminal offence was to provide homeowners with a speedy means of removing squatters from their homes. That was not inconsistent with the public policy objectives of the law of adverse possession – including the need to ensure that land is put to good use. Therefore, the two regimes could exist side by side.

The court was also influenced by the arbitrary distinctions which could otherwise arise. For example, the criminal offence was only committed by occupying the property. Therefore, a squatter who occupied a residential property would not be able to eventually claim possession, whereas one who was in adverse possession in some other way, for example, by fencing the property off, could still claim.

Whilst the reasoning of the court’s decision is hard to criticise, it appears that, in this instance at least, crime may well pay!

Case: Best v Chief Land Registrar [2015] EWCA Civ 17