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Builder strikes a blow for squatters after taking over Newbury Park house

Thursday, May 8, 2014
12:40 PM

A builder who renovated and took over a long-empty home more than 10 years ago has struck a landmark blow for squatters’ rights.

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However, Keith Best’s victory is bad news for private homeowners - after the High Court ruled that his rights as a trespasser survived, even though his occupation of 35, Church Road, Newbury Park, became a criminal offence in September 2012.

Mr Best was doing some work on a nearby property in 1997 when he heard that the owner of empty and heavily vandalised No. 35 had died.

The house was registered in the name of Doris May Curtis, but Mr Best entered the property and carried out extensive renovation works, including repairing the roof, putting in new ceilings and electrics and much plastering and painting.

He moved in in January 2012 and, in November the same year, applied to be officially registered as its owner, claiming he had “treated the house as his own since 2001.”

However, in September 2012, the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPOA) - which for the first time criminalised squatting - came into force.

The Chief Land Registrar refused to recognise Mr Best as the house’s lawful owner, saying that he had been committing a criminal offence for two months before he made his application.

But in a ruling which broke new legal ground, Mr Justice Ouseley today ruled that the Registrar got the law wrong and that the criminalisation of trespass did not affect Mr Best’s rights.

The judge accepted that it was a fundamental principle of the law that “rights should not be derived from criminal acts”.

However, against that, was the public interest in ensuring that long-vacant homes are returned to use and that those who had “long been in undisputed possession’ of private property should be entitled to treat it as their own.

He said that the law sought to “balance the interests of the dispossessed private owner” against those of the state in preventing long-term “sterilisation” of valuable land and in encouraging beneficial use of property.

There was no evidence that Parliament had even considered the impact of LASPOA on squatters’ rights.

And the judge said the statute had been introduced to help property owners who needed ‘more immediate and committed police action’ against trespassers and not to ‘throw a spanner into the delicate workings’ of the law of adverse possession.

Directing fresh consideration of Mr Best’s application, the judge said the Registrar’s refusal to recognise his rights was “founded on an error law”.

However, in a warning note to trespassers, the judge said that, even if the house is finally registered in Mr Best’s name, he could still be prosecuted for his period of occupation between the passage of LASPOA and his application to the Land Registry.

He added: “Mr Best asserts that he is a trespasser in the property...in reality, as a trespasser, he has been living in the building in breach of the criminal law as from September 1 2012, when section 144 of LASPOA came into force.”

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