The Truth About “How To Claim Free Land” Get Rich Quick Schemes

There are lots of adverts on the internet and even in the press for “get rich quick” schemes that promise, for a small fee, to reveal secrets that will allow you to claim acre upon acre of forgotten land legally and for free.

This all sounds too good to be true, but is there any substance to it? It is true that there is a mechanism in place which allows a person to claim ownership of land without actually having it transferred to him or paying any money for it but how can this be used?

The Law on Adverse Possession

Section 15(1) of the Limitation Act 1980 states that “No action shall be brought by any person to recover any land after the expiration of twelve years from the date on which the right of action accrued to him or, if it first accrued to some person through whom he claims, to that person.”

A person’s right to take action for recovery of land accrues on the date that a squatter takes up possession, so what this means is that, if a squatter remains on land for 12 years and no action is taken by the owner of the land, the owner cannot subsequently evict the squatter and he may therefore lawfully claim possession.

The 12 year period is extended to 30 years for Crown land, which includes land belonging to a dissolved company as this vests in the Crown.

The Limitation Act only applies to unregistered land. The rules for registered land are contained in the Land Registration Act 2002. Section 96 of that act disapplies section 15 of the Limitation Act in relation to registered land and Schedule 6 sets out the new rules. In accordance with schedule 6 a person may apply to be registered as proprietor if he has been in adverse possession for at least 10 years, however the Land Registry is obliged to service notice on the registered proprietor as well as anyone else with a registered interest (such as a mortgagee). Any reasonable objection may lead to the application being rejected.

It is possible that if an application is successful the squatter will take subject to any charge on the property which was registered before the date on which he first took up possession.

Finding the Land

How can you find “abandoned” land? Certainly there is no handy register to consult! Repeatedly choosing land at random and fencing it off, just to be chased off a few days later would quickly become very tiresome!

In practice, either some local knowledge would be required or else enquiries would need to be made of locals. The first thing to establish though is whether the land is registered. To do this, an index map search will need to be carried out. This is a search carried out via the land registry. It will cost £5.00 and will return any title numbers which are registered against the land you are hoping to claim. In view of the land registry’s obligation to serve notice on the proprietor of registered land when an application for possessory title is received (as well as anyone else with an interest, such as a mortgagee) it is unlikely that an application against registered title will be successful.

There is No Such Thing As Land That No one Owns

One claim which you might hear from someone selling this type of scheme is that land which is unregistered does not belong to anyone. That is false and the fact that it is unregistered simply means it hasn’t changed hands since registration became compulsory for that area.

In truth, all land belongs ultimately to the Crown, which in centuries gone by granted estates (i.e. freehold interests) to Lords and other noblemen. In the event that no estate has ever been granted in respect a particular piece of land then it still belongs to the Crown. Where a person dies without leaving a will and there are no relatives to inherit his assets (including any land he owned) then those assets will be held on trust for the Crown by the Treasury Solicitor.

Satisfying the Land Registry That the Requirements for a Claim

Upon making an application for possessory title (after possessing the land for 12 years) it will be necessary to satisfy the land registry that certain requirements have been met. This is done by means of statutory declaration, which will need to be sworn in the presence of a solicitor. The making of a false statutory declaration is a criminal offence.

The declaration will need to confirm that you have exercised the rights of an owner in respect of the land for at least 12 years and that you have done so openly and without the consent of the proprietor. It will need to detail what use you have made of the land and confirm that it has been annexed from surrounding land (i.e. fenced off) for the full 12 year period and that your occupation has been continuous. Any break in occupation would invalidate the claim.

What Level of Use is Sufficient to demonstrate an “Intention to Possess”?

Some of the purveyors of these land claiming schemes will suggest that such actions as gathering fruit from the land, using it as a right of way or simply fencing it off and laving it alone will be sufficient. This is not the case at all. Whilst doing these things may give rise to lesser interests, they do not amount to possession.

In fact, the use you make of the land must a use that only an owner would be entitled to make of it. Planting fruit trees and vegetables, and harvesting them, may be sufficient, as would building some permanent structure, such as a house.

Grazing animals would not be sufficient to claim adverse possession though if the animals are housed on the land it may.

What Use Can I Make of the Land While I Wait to Apply for Possession?

Given that the claim for possession cannot be made for at least 12 years this can hardly be described as “get rich quick”. No problem, say the sellers of the schemes, you can begin making money from the land right away, but is this actually true?

One idea is to plant fruit trees or vegetable patches and sell the produce. Even this though would take at least a full growing season, more if the soil needs to be prepared, and unless it is done on a commercial scale there won’t be much profit to be had. Remember also that licences are required to sell foodstuffs commercially.

Another suggestion is to use the land for grazing animals. This in itself is not a use that would be considered sufficient to demonstrate an intention to possess however. Furthermore, once you have signed a grazing agreement (assuming the animals are not yours) you will be obliged to honour it and if you cannot, because you are evicted from the land, you are liable to be sued by the owner of the animals.

If you build anything on the land then apart from the fact that any money you spend will be wasted if you are successfully evicted, you will most likely need to make an application for planning permission. Failure to make an application is an offence, as is making an application without notifying anyone else who has an interest in the land (i.e. the owner).

What the Law Was Designed For

The law on adverse possession was designed with the intention of ensuring that land was not allowed to become unusable simply because the owner had chosen to abandon it. The state considers land too valuable to be simply wasted. On a smaller scale it provides a mechanism with which to resolve such things as boundary issues, where it is unclear where one land owner’s land ends and the neighbour’s begins.

It was not designed to assist opportunists is appropriating land which is not rightfully theirs and whilst this is a possibility, there are protections in place for land owners.

Actions for Trespass or Criminal Damage

By occupying land which belongs to another without consent (commonly known as squatting) the occupier commits the offence of trespass and risks having civil or criminal proceedings brought against him. In addition, anything he does to the land, even if it appears as though it actually benefits the land, is criminal damage for which again, he could face criminal or civil proceedings.

Quite apart from the stigma and the stress involved in all of this, and the possibility of ending up with a criminal record (and the damage that could do to a person’s career), the land owner’s legal costs in pursuing any action, as well as the costs to remedy any criminal damage, may well be recoverable from the occupier. This could be thousands or even tens of thousands of pounds.

Accessing the Land

If the land is not accessible from a public highway, bridleway or footpath then although the land owner may have had legal rights over private land to access it the adverse possessor will not. In order to claim a right of way through long use at least 20 (sometimes 40) years continuous use must be demonstrated, so the adverse possessor could find he has possessory title to the land but no right to access it. It is true that rights can sometimes be claimed by necessity but the rules on this are strict and there is absolutely no guarantee a court would favour a squatter.

So Is It Worth a Try?

It is certainly possible under the law to claim free land, however given that you will need to occupy the land for at least 10 years it is certainly no “get rich quick” scheme. You could occupy the land for 9, 11 or even 29 years, and spend money in the process, only to be dispossessed just before your right to make a claim arose and you could incur substantial legal costs in the process.

It is certainly much more high risk than the adverts would lead you to believe and it is questionable whether there is any really valuable land (i.e. land that can be developed) that is “available” to be claimed. If you do decide to try this out you may get lucky but approach with caution!

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