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DIY squatter could own property thanks to Roman law

7th Jun 2014

A DIY squatter could land ownership of a property worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, thanks to a law dating back to Roman times.

However, the introduction of the more recent law of criminal trespass means he could also be prosecuted because he is “in reality a trespasser”.

Keith Best has spent a decade renovated 35 Church Road, Newbury Park, Ilford, an area where similar semi-detached three-bedroom properties have been on the market at about £390,000.

He said he had found the house empty and vandalised in 1997, and no one has challenged his right to ownership all the time he has occupied it.  He said the original owner had died and nothing had been seen of her son since 1996.

Best won a ground-breaking legal battle against the chief land registrar over the right to apply to register title to the property in his name.  This is on the basis that he has been “in adverse possession” of the property for the requisite period of at least 10 years, also known as “squatter’s title”.

His lawyers say the adverse possession principle dates back to Roman law and allowed “someone in possession of a good without title to become the lawful proprietor if the original owner didn’t show up after some time”.

The registrar attempted to block Best’s application for title, made in November 2012, because residential squatting was made a criminal offence by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.

The judge ordered the registrar to make an interim legal costs payment of £100,000 to Best, whose legal team brought the action on a no win, no fee basis.  Total costs are unofficially estimated at about £200,000.

The judge also gave the registrar permission to appeal, after describing Best as a guinea pig test case expected to affect many other similar cases.  He said: “I don’t know how many other cases are in the pipeline but there are indications that there are many, rather than one or two.”