What do Sir Richard Branson, Sting, Sir Bob Geldof and the Sex Pistols have in common? Apart from the musical connection – Richard Branson founded Virgin Records and the Sex Pistols once made a noise that vaguely resembled music – they were also, at some point in their lives, squatters.
A squatter occupies an abandoned or unoccupied area of land or a building they do not own, pay rent on, or have lawful permission to use. You don’t have to be famous, musical, barely musical, or British to be a squatter. In New Zealand, where squatting is given the legal term “Adverse Possession,” a person can occupy a building or piece of land and even take formal ownership of that property.
It rarely happens, but under the Land Transfer Act 2017, it is possible.
How a squatter can take ownership of a property
For a squatter to take ownership of a property, they must possess or occupy the land continuously for at least 20 years, and be fairly visible in doing so. For example, having grazing livestock, planting crops and trees, or living in a building for 20 years are good indicators of continuous possession.
The requirement of continuous possession is an important one, as it means applicants can’t make a retrospective claim. For example, if a house has been abandoned for 20 years someone can’t decide they’d quite like to move in and claim ownership. The key is to use the property for 20 continuous years, and better still, be seen to be using it.
What happens when that 20-year milestone has been reached?
At this point, the squatter can apply to Land Information New Zealand (LINZ) to have possession converted to ownership. Under the 2017 law, registered landowners do not have to be contacted directly before ownership is transferred. If public notices advising of the application are not responded to in the form of a caveat being placed on the title, and if the applicant can indeed prove continuous possession of the land for at least 20 years, there is no reason under the Land Transfer Amendment Act of 1963 why they can’t become the official owners of the property.
Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule. LINZ states applications for ownership cannot be made in the following circumstances:
- Land owned by the Crown (except where it could have vested as ownerless property (bona vacantia) but has been disclaimed in terms of section 170)
- Māori land
- Fee simple land owned by a local authority
- Land held in trust for a public purpose
- Land occupied by the applicant (where the applicant owns an adjoining property) because of a mistaken marking of a boundary
- Land occupied by the applicant because of a change in the position of a river, stream or creek or the isolation of the land from other land by a river, creek, stream, other natural feature, or by a road
So, why does Adverse Possession exist in the first place?
One of the biggest reasons is, simply, that the Crown wants land to be used productively rather than abandoned. But a property doesn’t have to be abandoned for an ambitious squatter, with 20 years on their hands, to move in. Unoccupied land might also be ripe for some possession of the adverse kind. So, if Great Aunty Agatha left you a little paddock in remote Northland a few years ago, it might be time to finally go and check it out.
Maybe Sir Richard Branson has pitched a tent on it and is grazing a few head of cattle in a very public way? Like the law itself, it’s highly unlikely, but you just never know.