Naturenet: Boundaries and Encroachment

Encroachment, and 'adverse possession'

Boundary fenceIn England or Wales, there’s usually no record of the exact boundary between neighbouring properties, or who owns the hedge, wall, tree or fence between properties. Boundaries are set by the deeds of the property but don't usually give exact information. You can apply to the Land Registry to get the exact boundary determined, but if your neighbour disagrees with you this can be an expensive process - and there's no guarantee it will come out the way you want either.

Normally, land can only change ownership by a complicated legal transaction. There are, however, certain circumstances in which a person can gain ownership of a piece of land simply by being on it for long enough. This part of the law is complicated, and we recommend you seek advice if you have to deal with this sort of thing.

In simple terms, the law means that if a neighbour of yours moves their fence by a few metres one year, and you do not complain or even mention it for a certain period of time, they could then legally claim to be the owners and occupiers of the land. The key elements are usually the fence or other boundary, and the use of the land. Usually, the land must be used as a part of the holding to which it is being attached, for example if a garden adjoins the land, the land encroached upon would probably need to be used as a garden too, to stand a chance of being claimed. In practice this need not mean much other than that it is not being used for anything obviously different. In addition, the boundary must be clearly marked. It is not normally possible for someone to claim a bit of land which is not adjacent to their own.

This process is known as 'adverse possession'. Adverse possession is a difficult and technical area of the law that involves the exclusive occupation of land in a way that is inconsistent with the rights of the existing owner.

An existing owner loses his or her ownership after there has been uninterrupted adverse possession for the “relevant period” laid down in the Limitation Act 1980. The relevant period is never less than 12 years. In the case of the Crown’s ownership (for example, Ministry of Defence land) the relevant period is never less than 30 years.

The person claiming the land, if successful, could sell the land to someone else, or use it themselves. A very common example of this which concerns countryside managers is where a long line of houses back onto, say, a woodland or heathland. The area immediately behind the houses tends to get adopted by the residents, gradually or even suddenly. They may throw garden rubbish over the fence and gradually move the pile further and further as it gets bigger. Or they may decide they simply like a neighbouring piece of land, put a fence around it, and start installing gnomes and swimming pools. In either case it is important for the landowner to put a stop to it immediately. This is because as soon as any person in the row sells their house, a wily solicitor may notice the state of affairs, suggest that a bigger garden would increase the value of the house, and start the legal process of declaring ownership of the land. If one householder succeeds, others will notice, and do the same. Gradually, the countryside will be whittled away, and turned into shrubberies! A shocking thought.

To stop this process in this example is not difficult, but may involve a little expenditure.

The Seven Year Rule

Adverse posession affects land ownership, not planning status. So this is different from the so called 'Seven year rule' which comes from Section 157(4) of the Planning and Development Act 2000. This means local authorities can't serve enforcement notices for an unauthorised development when seven years have passed since the commencement of the development. So for example, if you complain to the local planning authority about your neighbour doing something on their land that you don't like, if they've been doing it for seven years or more you might not have any luck stopping it.

Land Registry Practice Guide 4 - Adverse possession of registered land

Land Registry Practice Guide 5 - Adverse possession of (1) unregistered land (2) registered land where a right to be registered was acquired before 13 October 2003

Boundary Problems: boundary disputes and private right of way cases in UK.

Resolving neighbour disputes: page