For the most part, the boundaries of a property are set in stone. They will be listed in the property deed, and the only way this can be changed is through a convoluted legal process.
There are exceptions to this rule, though. Perhaps the biggest is a person being able to claim ownership over an area of land through continued use or occupancy for a period of time.
Due to the complicated nature of this exception, if you are locked in a boundary dispute, it is important that you seek advice.
The law and boundary disputes
The basis of the law isn’t that difficult to understand. Let’s say you have a neighbour and they move the fence a few metres into your property. This essentially creates a larger property boundary for them and a smaller one for you.
If you do not complain, then eventually the neighbour could claim that the new property boundaries are the real ones, and thus they are now the legal owners of the land that they took from you.
There are a lot of elements to this law. The major law focuses on the way in which the land is being used. Let’s take the previous neighbour as an example. We will assume that the original fence was bordering their garden.
If they moved the fence onto your property, then they must use the land that they have encroached on as a garden too. They can’t encroach on your land and build a garage or something like that.
There are exceptions to this rule, but for the most part, the use must remain the same for the encroached land as the land it is attached to.
On top of this, the boundaries must be marked clearly. You can’t say that you claim a piece of land.
We call this ‘adverse possession’. There are a lot of intricacies to this law. It is something which has evolved over many centuries. However, it essentially boils down to the occupation of land which goes against the rights of the person that owns it.
A lot of the law of ‘adverse possession’ is rooted in common law (i.e. judgements from court cases in England & Wales), but there have been several statutes which clarify the rules a little bit more.
Perhaps the most important is the Limitation Act 1980, which tells you how long you need to be ‘occupying’ land before you can make a claim on it. This will normally be 12-years, but if the land is owned by the Crown, then it will be at least 30-years.
After the 12-year or 30-year mark, a person can claim the land. If their claim is successful, then they can use the land how they wish. For example; they may be able to sell it, or use it; however, they see fit. This is something that you see happen a lot when houses back onto open country.
Over time, you will notice that many of these houses start to use the land immediately behind their home as ‘their own’ e.g. installing new fences. If the landowner of the countryside does not stop this, then they may lose rights to their land. This would actually increase the value of their home and start a knock-on effect where other properties start to claim the land too.
However, as stated, this is a very technical area of law, and there are many exceptions which would need to be discussed with an expert.