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Losing Your Property to Acquisitive Prescription

“… a person shall by prescription become the owner of a thing which he has possessed openly and as if he were the owner thereof for an uninterrupted period of 30 years or for a period which, together with any periods for which such thing was so possessed by his predecessors in title, constitutes an uninterrupted period of 30 years.” (Prescription Act)

Here’s another warning to be vigilant when it comes to someone else occupying any part of your property for 30 years or more – you could wake up one day to find you’ve lost your ownership altogether. With not a cent’s purchase price to show for it.

And whilst 30 years may seem like a long time, judging by the cases that come before our courts it does regularly take property owners by surprise.

A feature of our law since Roman times, “acquisitive prescription” is a legal process that allows a person to acquire ownership of a property through long-term occupation.

The requirements for 
acquisitive prescription

To succeed in such a claim under our Prescription Act, the possessor must prove at least 30 years of continuous “possession” both openly, and as if the owner. “Possession” in this context refers to “civil possession”, a concept which (to put it as simply as possible) means physical possession with the intention of owning the property. Whether or not you think you are the true owner or know that you aren’t, is irrelevant here.

Somewhat more colourfully, you may also come across the Latin phrase (beloved in legal circles) “Nec vi, nec clam, nec precario” – meaning in essence that your possession must be “without force, without secrecy, without permission.”

Let’s have a look at a recent and illustrative case in which a property owning company’s attempts to retain ownership of a piece of its land came to nought.

The buyers who didn’t notice a nursery and park on their land – for 31 years

  • In 1993, two individuals bought a property-owning company and were appointed directors. Their plan was to develop and sell the thirty-nine plots owned by the company.
  • Unknown to them, a neighbour had since 1990 occupied a portion of the (then undeveloped) property. The possessor had at her own cost transformed the land into a nursery and community park, using water and electricity from other neighbours and reimbursing them.
  • The directors had never noticed the nursery and park as they drove past because neither was visible from the road, being hidden by dense vegetation. They assumed the nursery was on neighbouring land.
  • After 31 years of continuous occupation the possessor asked the High Court to order registration of the occupied land into her name.

Was the possessor’s illegal use of the property a factor?

  • One can imagine the directors’ shock at learning that they stood to lose a portion of their property, with zero compensation.
  • One of the defences they raised was that the possessor’s illegal use of water and electricity on the property, her failure to apply for rezoning, and her unauthorised use of the property as a nursery all prevented her from meeting the requirements for acquisitive prescription.
  • Not so, held the Court, her possession was in itself not unlawful and her illegal usage did not affect her possession of the land as owner.
  • The property will now be registered into the possessor’s name.

Owners – monitor your property!

As a registered owner monitor your property and take action against any occupiers. Or indeed against anyone using your property for anything, because “servitudes” (rights of use or access over your property) can also be acquired by prescription.

Before you buy…

The losers in this particular case would have saved themselves a lot of pain if back in 1993 they had checked properly for occupiers on the company’s land – don’t fall into the same trap!

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