The answer is the principle of adverse possession, colloquially known as ‘squatter’s rights’.
This principle can be relied on where a person, who is not the legal owner of the land, has possession of the land for a continued period of time. An argument can then be formulated that the person acquires possessory title to the land, which in turn extinguishes the registered proprietor’s interest in the land, such that the person becomes the legal owner (hereafter referred to as the possessory title holder).
The Law of Adverse Possession
In New South Wales, the law of adverse possession is governed by the Limitation Act 1969 (NSW), the Real Property Act 1900 (NSW), and common law principles.
For land to be adversely possessed, a person must possess the land:
- exclusively against all others,
- openly, i.e. it cannot be secret,
- adversely to the registered proprietor, i.e. without their consent (where a person has leased or occupied the land under agreement from the registered proprietor, the principle of adverse possession could not be relied upon),
- peacefully and not with force, and
- for a continuous and uninterrupted period of at least 12 years.
If the above criteria are met, the registered proprietor’s legal interest in the land is ‘extinguished’ and cannot be revived by any Court application or process except with the possessory title holder’s consent.
Adverse possession may also be established where the adverse possessor had a mistaken belief that the land belonged to them and there was no deliberate intention to adversely possess the land.
Whole of the Land vs Part of the Land
Whether you can rely upon the principle of adverse possession for a portion of a lot of land depends on the form of land ownership. Typically, in New South Wales, a person would need to possess the whole of the relevant lot of land, and not just a slice or portion of the lot of land.