A Land Registry error which resulted in two individuals being concurrently registered as freehold owners of the same plot of land has been put right by the Court of Appeal in a test case which raised an important point of principle involving the separation of legal and beneficial ownership in relation to adverse possession (the legal term for claiming legal ownership of a property on the basis of having occupied it for a number of years).
The disputed plot had been part of the registered title to No 29 Milner Street, in Chelsea, Central London, for almost a century. However, in 1986, the Land Registry made a mistake and also registered it as part of No 31 Milner Street. The error was compounded by another, in 2000, when the land was excluded from the title to No 29 whilst a computerised plan was being made of the property. The end result was that the owners of No 29 were, at least on paper, stripped of a piece of land in one of the most expensive areas in the country without any money having changed hands.
The owner of No 29 applied to the Land Registry to restore the land to him. However, the owner of No 31 resisted the application on the basis that she and members of her family before her had been in adverse possession of the plot for more than 12 years (the then time limit) and the existing registration should therefore stand.
The owner of No 31 won the argument before a Land Registry deputy adjudicator and again at the High Court, but that result was reversed on appeal. The Court of Appeal concluded that the owner of No 31 and her predecessors could not have developed adverse possession rights over the plot because, as its registered owners, they had not been trespassers and their occupation had been lawful.
Observing that ‘mistakes may be made’, Lord Justice Mummery said, “The plain unvarnished fact is that (the owner of No 31) is seeking to take the benefit of a mistake by the Land Registry, which had occurred through no fault of (the owner of No 29) and which it would be unjust not to correct.”
The ruling opens the way for the owner of No 29 to obtain rectification of the register to reattach the disputed plot to his title and to recognise him as its rightful owner.