Leading case – J A Pye (Oxford) Ltd & Ors v Graham & Anor  UKHL 30 (4 July 2002)
The legal principle of adverse possession is based on the concept of the limitation of actions by time, in that if there is cause for legal action in many cases this must be brought within a set time limit, or within a ‘reasonable’ amount of time, or the right to sue is lost.
In the case of trespassing, to which adverse possession refers, if the owner fails to sue a trespasser within a set limitation period, the title of the land transfers to that trespasser by default.
The introduction of the Land Registration Act 2002 (LRA), on which we have written before (see our comments here), introduced large changes to this rule dependent on the registration status of the land in question, which we detail below.
The LRA (2002) sets the limitation period for a trespasser on land to 10 years. If after this time the trespasser (who does not own the legal title) can show that he had actual possession of the land and that he had the intention to possess the land for that period, he will have adverse possession and may be able to defeat the title of the actual owner.
Where the registry office receives an application for adverse possession, they immediately notify the registered title holder and any other parties with a registered interest who can object to the Registrar within a set time limit. By objecting, the trespasser can only obtain title to the land if his situation makes it unconscionable because of an equity by promissory estoppel for the owner to dispossess the trespasser, if there is another reason for the trespasser to be considered as proprietor or if the land is adjacent to that owned by the trespasser for which the boundary has not been set and registered and he truly believed that the land was part of his own property for the 10 year period.
Where these provisions cannot be met, the registered owner has two years to evict the trespasser and obtain possession of the land. If he fails to do so, the trespasser may apply again and will be granted the title.
The situation for unregistered land is far simpler. The limitation period is longer at 12 years in accordance with section 15 of the Limitation Act 1980. If after that period the trespasser can show, as above, that he had possession of the land and that he had the intention to possess it, he will be able to defeat the original title owner.
Exceptions to this do exist. In particular an owner with a disability can have this period extended if it stands in the way of him enforcing his ownership and the period’s running can be stopped if court proceedings are brought against the trespasser during the 12 years.
As with many statutes, there are provisions to preserve the position of a trespasser who was in adverse possession for the 12 years as at 13 October 2003, in which he is allowed to apply under the old rules.
More information on the act can be found here: