Business Clinic: How do we check decades-old land ownership?

Whether it’s a legal, tax, insurance, management or land issue, Farmers Weekly’s Business Clinic experts can help.

Here, solicitor Jessica Moore of of Thrings’ agriculture team, explains how the ownership of land can be established.

Q: More than 40 years ago my father bought a 400-acre arable farm adjoining a large industrial site, which is fenced off permanently.

One of the fields (12 acres) runs right up to this fence on two sides. We have always farmed this field in accordance with the maps we were given on buying the farm. The land is also registered to us for BPS.

In this field is about three acres of very poor soil adjoining the industrial estate. Over the years there were rumours that this land belonged to the industrial site, but for 25 years nothing official was ever mentioned until we received a letter about an unrelated matter with a postscript informing us that we might be farming some land that doesn’t officially belong to us.

We carried on farming and nothing more has been said since. We have heard lately that this land may be developed, but again, nothing official. How can we find out who owns this land and what rights we have over it?

See also: Business Clinic: Brothers disagree on sale of inherited land

A: The starting point is to establish whether the land is registered at the Land Registry. The registry keeps a public record of land and property registered in England and Wales which is searchable using a property address or location.

If the land is registered, it will have an allocated title number which will enable you to check for a small fee who is the legal owner by requesting a copy of the title register.

It is also advisable to obtain a copy of the corresponding title plan to check the general boundary of the land registered under that title number.

However, if the land is not registered, you should consult the title deeds in relation to the farm and the area in question.

The title deeds may be in your possession or stored with your lender (if there is a legal charge over all or part of the land), or they may be held by your solicitors for safekeeping.

In either case, referring to the title deeds or the Land Registry’s records will help you identify who is the legal owner of the land, as well as any rights which benefit or burden the land.

Adverse possession

What if the land is not in fact legally owned by you?

Land can be lost to adverse possession, sometimes known as “squatters’ rights” which is where somebody is able to claim ownership of land they do not legally own (in this case you) if they have physically possessed it, while satisfying other relevant criteria, for the requisite period of time.

This period will depend on whether the land is registered or unregistered, as two different regimes apply.

Generally, it is harder to satisfy a claim for adverse possession in relation to registered land under the new regime brought in by the Land Registry Act 2002. 

Regardless of whether or not the land is registered, possession of it must be “adverse” which effectively means it must be without the legal owner’s consent or permission (in this case without the consent or permission of the owners of the industrial estate).

You would also need to demonstrate factual possession of the land and an intention to possess it.

The relevant period of time for unregistered land is 12 years, and for registered land it is 10 years. However, transitional provisions also apply.

The process of establishing a claim for adverse possession is often complex, depending on the circumstances and facts of the case, and you would need to compile full details regarding occupation and use of the land together with supporting evidence.

Claims for adverse possession can also be contested by the legal owner of the land, who in cases of registered land, will receive notice of any application by the Land Registry if a claim is made.

If the matter cannot be resolved then this could result in a referral to the First-Tier Tribunal (a specialist court for land matters), so it is important to establish the grounds for an application, and whether or not this is likely to be successful, before it is lodged.

Do you have a question for the panel?

Outline your legal, tax, finance, insurance or farm management question in no more than 350 words and Farmers Weekly will put it to a member of the panel. Please give as much information as possible.

Email your question to using the subject line “Business Clinic”.