A dispute over the ownership of a boundary wall has cost the unfortunate loser more than a quarter of a million pounds in legal costs after the case went all the way to the Court of Appeal.
The dispute arose when a couple named Wilson decided to create a store and garage by using their boundary wall. This meant increasing the height of the wall, which would have reduced the light to the conservatory of their neighbour, Mr Palfrey.
Mr Palfrey believed that he owned the wall. Although Courage Brewery, the previous owner of his property, had not known who had maintained it, it had believed it was the owner of the wall and Mr Palfrey believed that title had passed to him. He had, in addition, carried out minor repairs to the wall over the years.
The Wilsons claimed ownership of the wall under the law of adverse possession (often known as ‘squatter’s rights’). This allows the legal title of land to be transferred (provided certain conditions are met) to a person who occupies it, provided that the ‘paper title’ owner makes no attempt, over several years, to assert their rights to exclusive occupation of the land. The Wilsons claimed that they and the previous owners of their property had maintained the wall for many years, adding a damp course to it and even rebuilding it on one occasion when it was damaged. In addition, the previous owner of their property had obtained prior planning permission to raise the height of the wall. When his conservatory was built, Mr Palfrey had asked permission of the Wilsons to key the structure into the wall and that permission was refused.
In the view of the Court of Appeal, the works done relating to the wall were sufficient to support the premise that the previous owners of the Wilsons’ property considered that they owned the wall and that this conclusion was not obviously wrong. Mr Palfrey therefore lost his case.
Interestingly, in a High Court case dealing with disputed ownership of a boundary strip, the decision went in favour of the owner of the ‘paper title’, not the couple who considered they owned the land and who claimed to have maintained it for seventeen years, planting shrubs and other plants on it. In that case, the lack of independent corroboration of their evidence seemed to be fatal to their claim.