Property Disputes – Boundaries, Rights Over Land, Squatters
It is not always appreciated that the boundaries of properties are in many cases unclear and that boundary disputes can arise in several ways. Such disputes are not confined to where the exact boundary line between two properties lies. Boundary disputes can arise for a whole raft of reasons, many of which involve alleged rights to use an area of land.
Pure boundary issues
The plans attached to deeds are not always precise and disputes about the precise line of ownership can easily escalate. Often, the cost of obtaining a court ruling on a disputed boundary line can be thousands of times the value of the land in dispute.
The potential problems can be even greater if the land in question is unregistered (as is approximately 1/5th of property in the UK).
There are some ‘rules of thumb’ which apply, such as the ‘hedge and ditch rule’. This states that where a ditch runs alongside a hedge, the ditch is normally the property of the owner of the hedge.
Rights over land
Disputes over property often have as their source rights over or attaching to land.
For example, your neighbour may tell you that they have a right over your land because of an ‘easement’, a right of way, a covenant on the land, ‘squatters’ rights (called adverse possession in legal terms) or because they need to do work on their property (see below).
What are easements, covenants and rights of way?
These are rights other people have to cross your land. A covenant will be attached to the title of your land, so an examination of the title deeds should show if a covenant exists and whether it will still be valid. Not all covenants last throughout time; some are limited, for example a covenant that can only be enforced by the person who created it. It is common for a person who divides a plot and sells part of it for development to place quite strict covenants on what the owner of the land that is sold can do with the land. Many such covenants are only effective as long as the original owner still owns their property, and then lapse.
Easements and rights of way may be specific to a person or persons, or they may apply to the public at large. They can arise through use over time as well as from legal documents. Public rights of way are particularly common in rural areas.
A right of access over land can also be built up over time, by use.
Are there general legal rights of access over property?
Utilities companies and (where it is necessary in order to do work on their property) a next-door neighbour have a limited legal right to cross your land. You also have the right to access your neighbour’s land if this is necessary to carry out repairs to your property. In both cases, the owner’s property must be left as it was found and any damage repaired. A neighbour’s right of access for this purpose is permitted under the Access to Neighbouring Land Act 1992.
Rights of access may also be specifically set out in the deeds to a property. One example, which can be a common source of argument, is where there is a shared driveway. One recent case ended up in court when two neighbours who shared a common drive took different views on whether the gate to the drive should be padlocked at night.
What can I do if a neighbour wants to take my light or block my view?
These sorts of issues are what lawyers call ‘nuisances’. The law is quite complex, but the key to a satisfactory conclusion is to ascertain your legal rights early on and to enforce them. The right to light can be acquired by the passing of time alone. Issues relating to a loss of amenity, such as a view, are more involved.
The earlier legal advice is taken the better.
More commonly, though, actions such as the building of a high wall, planting of Leylandii or the construction of a building extension which ‘takes the light’ from a next-door property are the cause of a dispute. There are specific laws to deal with the former problem but where the loss of amenity is due to an extension, it is normally best to oppose this at the planning application stage.
How do I deal with squatters?
Squatting in residential property is a criminal offence, which can lead to imprisonment and/or a substantial fine. Squatting in non-residential property is not a criminal offence, but damaging another person’s property is.
If persuasion does not work, a court order may be necessary. This will require the squatters to leave your property within 24 hours or face arrest and a possible prison sentence.
So what are squatters' rights?
Squatters’ rights (called ‘adverse possession’) can arise when a person occupies a property as if it is their own for a lengthy period of time without the owner of the property taking steps to prevent it. Where the land in question is registered, the law no allows a squatter to apply for the legal title to the land to be passed to them after 10 years’ occupation. In practice, the procedure has sufficient safeguards to make the prevention of the loss of your property relatively straightforward. As is often the case in disputes of this kind, speed is of the essence. We advise you to contact us as soon as you receive such a notice so that the correct legal steps can be taken.
Poorly drafted leases
When a developer skimps on the quality of the drafting of the leases of flats they sell, conflict over a number of issues can be the result, including rights over the property and, in particular, who is responsible for keeping different areas of the property in good repair.
A client of ours who owns a flat shares the entrance with the upstairs flat and was surprised to find that the owner claimed that the entrance to the flats was their property…and then started making demands over the use our tenant could make of the entrance.
The area was shown on our client’s plan as a common area and there was no mention in their lease that their right over the area was limited to an ‘easement’ (a right of access over land) applying with regard to the entrance. The documents of title at the Land Registry were unclear as to the boundary.
To avoid a costly legal fight, we advised our client to tell the upstairs flat owner that they intended to register a ‘caution’ over the upstairs owner’s title, thus placing a warning on file that there was a potential dispute. As the owner of the upstairs flat was contemplating selling their property in the near future and wished to avoid the complications that a caution could cause, a speedy resolution was achieved.
Property law in the UK is a mixture of very ancient law and specific law aimed at providing resolution to specific problems Property occupation or ownership therefore involves a great number of rights and obligations.
Many issues can arise because of the complexity of the law. If a property dispute of any kind rears its head, contact us fast. It is sensible to take legal advice as early as possible and to manage the dispute as amicably as possible, in the hope that a resolution can be reached without the need to go to court.
How Selachii Can Help
Selachii is a dynamic litigation and dispute resolution law firm based in Kensington, London. We put the best interests of our clients at the heart of everything we do. We work with both businesses and private individuals, giving them legal advice and support which is unique to them and their situation.
We don’t believe in simply handing out one-size-fits-all solutions to problems. We will focus on your specific circumstances before working out the best and most cost-effective way of helping you achieve your aims.