A bench and unregistered land

ELF was recently contacted by a resident of Guildford, wanting to re-instate a bench that had been removed from land behind the London Road Station car park. While this initially appeared to be a simple request, the discovery that the land in question is unregistered complicated the matter enormously.

Where land is unregistered, the only place to find title and ownership of the land is in the paper title deeds which are unlikely to be electronically filed; these are traditionally kept by the property owners at the property itself. The law of unregistered land is not a subject very frequently visited by property lawyers anymore and, as is evident from this case, the path to finding these title deeds is not a simple one.

In this case, our first line of advice to finding the title deeds was for the client to contact a number of potential owners including the local councils and neighbouring properties. Our client had already received responses from the Borough Council and various local authorities who stated that they had no records of the land being owned by them or of the public right of way running through the land. This was an unexpected response, considering that the footpath is properly paved and the land itself looks well-maintained.

To complicate the matter further, occupying the land are a collection of WWII tank traps or ‘dragon’s teeth’ which were erected in 1941 according to the Surrey County Council Ordinance Map. This indicates that even if the land is not owned by a local council, they must have some knowledge about the history and use of the land.

From this information, we also considered the prospect that the land might be categorised as common land for the purposes of the Commons Act 2006. It is possible for land to be registered as common land despite ownership remaining unclaimed; in these cases, the land will be protected by the local authority who may, in turn, be able to approve the bench. Our research also identified that during WWII some areas of common land were requisitioned for military use which may have been the case here when the tank traps were employed. It is for these reasons that we recommended the client revert back to Surrey County and Guildford Borough Councils with this information in order for them to check what records they hold about the land.

Thus, the majority of our research involved looking for practical solutions for finding the owner of the land. However, our investigation did bring us back to the question: what can be done if the owner of the land cannot be found? Legally, it is not possible simply to register the land in your own name without title deeds and valid proof of title. The only remaining option for ownership of land belonging to another is adverse possession (factual possession with intention to possess and without owner’s permission). However, in these circumstances we strongly advised against this as it would be almost impossible to show factual possession of the land considering the tank traps and its location.

Hence, somewhat disappointingly, we could not come to any clear conclusions for the client. However, we do hope that she continues her investigation with our guidance leading her down the right path to find the owner of this unregistered land.