Land Law


This topic looks at the law of “adverse possession” – which allows squatters to acquire ownership of someone else’s land, in certain circumstances. We will examine, in particular, the case of JA Pye (Oxford) Ltd v Graham, in which the House of Lords decided that under English law, squatters had become the owners of a multi-million pound plot of land that the original owner had earmarked for development. Why was the case decided in this way? Can we justify the outcome? And what happened when the original owners appealed the decision to the European Court of Human Rights?

The following activities will draw on your analytical skills (by asking you to consider and apply technical legal rules), and will also encourage you to evaluate the law (by thinking critically about whether or not the current rules and outcomes can be justified). As you go through the activities, try to remain as open-minded as possible, so that you are in a position to think objectively about the state of the current law.

Introduction to Land Law and Adverse Possession

The law relating to squatters forms part of English ‘Land Law’ - one of the core “foundation subjects” studied by university Law students. 

The Law which regulates our rights to land is important, yet incredibly complicated. This is because different people value land for many different reasons. For instance, land may represent a store of economic wealth (eg for someone who buys land as an investment); it may have emotional significance (eg when you occupy land as your home); it may be used purely to generate economic wealth (eg when land is rented out for business purposes); or it may be used to provide public amenities (eg a public park). Difficult legal questions may arise when these competing values come into conflict.

Imagine that an unmarried couple, Harriet and James, bought a house together 10 years ago. Their relationship has recently broken down. Harriet has moved out and wants the property to be sold, whereas James values the land as his home, and wishes to continue living there. How should we resolve this conflict between Harriet – who wishes to extract the economic value from the land – and James – who attaches emotional value to the land? This is the sort of difficult question that Land Law must address.

Adverse possession: some background information

In this topic we will be looking at the law of “adverse possession”, a body of rules which allows a squatter to acquire ownership of someone else’s land once the squatter has been in occupation for a certain period of time, without having to pay any compensation to the original owner. The fact that the law allows this might come as a surprise you. Indeed, for obvious reasons, this area of law has provoked strong media reactions. (To see this for yourself, do an internet search for ‘news squatters’ and you will see an array of news stories!) Some examples of successful claims by squatters include:

Harry Hallowes (Hampstead Heath, London)

In 1987, Harrow Hallowes built a shack on land owned by a nursing home, on the edge of Hampstead Heath in London, without the nursing home’s permission. After Harry had lived there for 12 years, he became the owner of the land on which his shack was built (worth several millions of pounds today). What do you think about this outcome? For examples of the media’s reaction, see:

• BBC News:

• Daily Mail:

• Daily Telegraph:

• The Guardian:

Jack Blackburn (Brixton, London)

Jack Blackburn’s case concerns a flat along this street in Brixton, which used to be owned by Lambeth London Borough Council.

In the 1980s, the Council had plans to regenerate the whole area, and so decided to leave the flat empty pending redevelopment. In 1988, Jack Blackburn broke into the flat, which by that time was derelict, set about renovating it, and made it his home. Twelve years later, the Court of Appeal decided that Jack had become the owner of the Council’s property. Similar properties are now worth over £500,000. What do you think about this outcome? For the media’s reaction to this case, see:

• Daily Mail:

• Daily Telegraph:

Boundary disputes

The law of adverse possession also has a role to play between neighbouring landowners. Imagine a situation where ‘Owner A’ has encroached upon a metre of land in the garden that technically belongs to his neighbour, ‘Owner B’. Here, once Owner A has occupied the extra land for the requisite number of years, the law of adverse possession may make him the owner. Can we justify this sort of outcome? Disputes between neighbours can be intense and potentially very ugly – especially where they concern the location of a boundary. Does the law of adverse possession help provide a satisfactory outcome?

For more information about squatting, you might like to look at ‘Squatters’ Advisory Service’ website.

Video Resource

Video Resource

Video Resource

Video Resource

Resource activities

Squatters and the Law

In this activity, we will consider why the Law might give rights to squatters. 


Adverse Possession prior 2003

What is the law of adverse possession in England and Wales?


Adverse Possession post 2003

The law of adverse possession underwent a partial but major change in October 2003. Work through this activity to find out what changed.


Squatters and Criminality

In 2012, squatting became a criminal offense. Find out more about why the offence was enacted in this activity.


Reflective questions

To answer and record these questions you will need to have an account and be logged in.

Task 1

What are the key arguments, concepts, points contained within it?

Task 2

What are you struggling to understand?

What could you do to improve your understanding of these concepts/terminology etc.?

Task 3

What further questions has this resource raised for you?

What else are you keen to discover about this topic and how could you go about learning more?

Can you make any links between this topic and your prior knowledge or school studies?

Help us evaluate this resource

Your feedback is very important to us. Please complete a short questionnaire.


Further reading