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In Brown v Ridley and another [2024], a landowner has defended his title to land subject to an adverse possession claim on the basis that the applicants did not meet the 'reasonable belief' condition set out at paragraph 5(4)(c), Schedule 6 of the Land Registration Act 2002 (the 2002 Act).

The application for adverse possession was made by Mr and Mrs Ridley in respect of a strip of land which bordered their property, Valley View. The Ridleys had purchased Valley View in 2004 and always treated the strip of land as their own, unaware that it was owned by their neighbour, Mr Brown. It was only when the Ridleys began to build an additional house, part of which sat on the strip of land, that the issue of its disputed ownership came to light.   

The Ridleys made an application for adverse possession of the strip of land under the 2002 Act evidencing that they, and their predecessors in title, had adversely possessed the land for more than 10 years. As the disputed land was registered to Mr Brown, he was able to challenge that application.  In order for the Ridleys' application to be successful they then needed to satisfy one of the three conditions set out in paragraph 5, Schedule 6 of the 2002 Act.  

Under paragraph 5(4)(c), Schedule 6 of the Act, an applicant must evidence that they (or any predecessor in title) had reasonable belief that the disputed land belonged to them 'for at least ten years of the period of adverse possession ending on the date of the application'.  The question the Upper Tribunal was faced with was whether the wording of the legislation meant that (i) the ten year period has to conclude on the date of the application being made, or (ii) it can be any ten year period during the overall period of adverse possession.

In the first instance, the First Tier Tribunal (FTT) had held that the ten year period of reasonable belief did not need to persist up until the date of the Ridleys' application in order to satisfy the condition.  Provided they could show they held a reasonable belief for a ten year period at any point during the adverse possession, it did not matter if there had been a significant gap between the Ridleys discovering Mr Brown was the registered owner of the land and their application being made.

The position on this issue had previously been commented on in the Court of Appeal case of Zarb v Parry which held that the ten year period must end on the date of the application.  There have since been a number of FTT decisions which have treated Zarb as a non-binding authority on this point and held the alternative interpretation to be correct.  However, the Upper Tribunal found the Court of Appeal's decision in Zarb must be treated as being binding, dismissing the FTT's earlier contrary finding in this case as an error of law.

The Ridleys were found to have waited almost two years after discovering Mr Brown's ownership of the strip of land before making their application.  As a result, it was held they had failed to satisfy the reasonable belief condition under paragraph 5(4)(c) of the 2002 Act and the Chief Land Registrar was directed to cancel their application, upholding Mr Brown's position as registered owner of the land.

The Upper Tribunal's decision highlights the importance of acting quickly once a party becomes aware of a dispute over the ownership of land as any significant delay to an application for adverse possession may prevent a party from successfully establishing their position as the rightful landowner.