12th March 2019
Who Owns That Forest Land?
It is always interesting to talk to clients who live in the Forest of Dean about how long their families have been in the area. Usually it is for decades, sometimes for centuries. The long history of the Forest means that local knowledge is often vital if a dispute arises about the ownership of land, or even the line of a boundary. Even today, where most land in the UK is registered at the Land Registry, there are still parcels of land whose ownership is a mystery. In the Forest, resolving these situations can involve knocking on doors to ask people living nearby if they can shed any light.
Our client’s situation was fairly typical. He had recently moved to a small town in the Forest of Dean on the edge of some Forestry Commission land. The couple who sold him the house said that for many years they had parked their car on a small patch of land adjacent to the house. They had put a gate across it to stop anyone else using it. The client therefore began to park his car on the land, and assumed he had the right to do so. Nobody objected for a year or so, but then someone new moved into a house on the opposite side and said they in fact they owned the parking area – it was part of their title. They left their own car there, meaning that the client had to leave his car at a car park in town – 5 minutes’ walk away.
When the client engaged us, we checked with the Land Registry to see who really owned the land. It turned out that the new neighbours did not own it, despite what they said. In fact, it was not registered as belonging to anyone. We made further enquiries with the Highways Department and the Forestry Commission, and both said that it did not belong to them.
Then the real detective work started. We surveyed the local residents, many of whom had lived in the area all their lives. One man in his 70s was a wealth of information about the houses on the road and who had lived in them. Importantly, he could remember the residents of the client’s house as far back as the 1960s using that area of land to park their cars. We also talked to the client’s predecessors at the house, or rather one of their children, who had grown up in the house. She had fond childhood memories of her father’s Austin Princess always being parked on that spot. She even had some family photos showing the gate being constructed in the early 1980s. This was like finding a crock of gold for our client!
The position was that while no-one seemed to own the land, the client could prove a long chain of use going back many decades. He had statements from neighbours supporting this, and photos showing the land being used as a car parking area.
We made an application to the Land Registry to register the land in our client’s name, on the basis that he and his predecessors had used it for many years. This is called an application for adverse possession (or ‘squatter’s rights’). The new neighbour objected, but after a site inspection by the Land Registry surveyor, and consideration of all the evidence we had gathered, the application succeeded. The client now has undisputed use of the land, and has the legal right to prevent other people using it.
In this case it was important that we could show that the use of the land was continual, that nobody had objected to the use, and that other people had been prevented from using the land (by the gate).