- Builder Keith Best ‘treated the house as his own’ after hearing it was empty
- Owner died and her son had not visited since he was attacked in the area
- High Court judge rules the house is Best’s due to ‘no action by the owner’
- Neighbours furious that builder ‘trespassed and got a free house out of it’
PUBLISHED: 04:59, 8 May 2014 | UPDATED: 19:59, 8 May 2014
The rightful owner of a £400,000 house handed to a squatter by a High Court judge today furiously asked: ‘How can this man sleep at night?’
Builder Keith Best spent several years renovating the three-bedroom semi-detached property but had lived in it for just a few months when he applied for permanent possession.
The Chief Land Registrar turned him down but Mr Justice Ouseley overturned the ruling – despite accepting Best had been committing criminal trespass.
Keith Best won the right to the house in Church Road, Ilford, east London after squatting in it for years
The registrar’s decision was ‘founded on an error of law’, he said, and previous legislation that treated squatting as a civil matter should apply.
The house, in Newbury Park, north east London, originally belonged to widow Doris Curtis, who died aged 88 in the late 1980s.
Her shocked son Colin, 78, who lives in sheltered accommodation, revealed he had no idea the house had been handed to a stranger until the Daily Mail approached him after the hearing.
The house formerly belonged to the mother of Colin Curtis, but he rarely visited after he was attacked in the area, neighbours say
‘How can this man sleep at night? I didn’t know a thing about this case or that anyone had moved into the house,’ he said from his flat in Romford.
The former tube station kiosk owner moved into the house after getting divorced in 1978 because his mother was getting ‘fragile’.
He stayed there after she died and only left in 1996 when he inherited another property from an aunt.
‘I left the house as it was. I should have done something but there were a lot of personal problems,’ he added.
‘My daughter Susan died from breast cancer in 1990 and my son David died five ago aged 49 from liver disease.’
Despite never visiting the house, he continued paying council tax until four years ago when Redbridge Council sent a letter saying it was no longer necessary.
He added: ‘They didn’t say why. I just assumed it was to do with the state of the house, not that someone else was living there. They should have told me.’
Mr Curtis’s MP yesterday said the case raised concerns about the rights still given to squatters.
Tory Andrew Rosindell said: ‘This case highlights the need for further examination of the law, which should give precedence to the rightful owner of the property.
The ruling means homeowners do not automatically have legal protection against someone who occupies their home
DO SQUATTERS’ RIGHTS STILL EXIST DESPITE SQUATTING BECOMING ILLEGAL?
In September 2012 squatting in England and Wales became a criminal offence.
Squatting in residential buildings can lead to six months in prison, a £5,000 fine, or both.
Before it became a crime, squatters could take ownership of the property by virtue of having lived in it for a certain period of time.
The duration in which a squatter needed to live in a property before they could apply to be registered as proprietor of the land was dependent on whether the land was registered or unregistered.
Unregistered land meant a squatter could claim ownership after a period of 12 years adverse possession of it.
If the land was registered land and they occupied it for 10 years they could apply to be registered owner of the land.
If the squatter is not entitled to be registered, the registered owner then had two years to obtain possession against the squatter. If this did not happen – the squatter remained in possession and could apply once again for registration as owner.
But in light of the new law, when Mr Best tried to register the land his request was blocked because squatting is now illegal.
But following the judge’s ruling, his case is now a landmark victory for ‘squatters’ rights’ as even though squatting is ‘criminalised’ by the Government he has still been allowed ownership.
‘If you have a law which allows someone to grab a property – even if no one bothers them – then it’s an open invitation for squatters.’
Mike Gapes, the Labour MP for Ilford South, added the court ruling raised ‘very serious issues’.
‘This could set a precedent and will lead to protracted and difficult legal disputes. The government needs to clarify the position urgently,’ he said.
Mr Best, 45, told the High Court in London he was working on a property in 1997 when the owner mentioned the occupant of a nearby house had died and her son had not been seen for some time.
He began renovating the house and treated it ‘as his own’ from 2001, although it was not until January 2012 that he moved in. Neighbours said he parks a Mercedes car outside.
His unsuccessful application for adverse possession to the Chief Land Registrar was submitted in November that year – a few weeks after squatting was criminalised under section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.
The law was introduced to stop the scandal of law-abiding owners being barred from their own properties and having to pay expensive court costs to evict squatters.
But Mr Justice Ouseley said it was intended to deal with squatters who ‘exploited the civil law’s delays to fortify the house against the owner… at a cost to [the owner] which was unlikely to be recovered’.
Adverse possession was still possible in any private property where at least ten years had passed ‘without effective action by the owner’.
The registrar was ordered to make an interim cost payment of £100,000 to Mr Best’s legal team, who brought the action on a no-win, no-fee basis. Total costs are expected to be in the region of £200,000.
However, the judge did grant the right to appeal as his ruling will affect similar cases.
Neighbours in Church Street were outraged by the decision.
One, who asked not to be named, said: ‘It’s totally wrong he [Best] has been able to do this. He’s trespassed and got a free house out of it.
‘People are very angry – everyone else has had to save up and pay off their mortgage.’
The Land Registry said the only enquiries it made were with the Probate Registry to see if an executor of Mrs Curtis’s estate had been appointed but ‘nothing was revealed’.
After the hearing on Wednesday a man answering a phone registered to Mr Best claimed not to be him.
He said: ‘He’s gone abroad – he left earlier today.’
Riz Majid, of London law firm Neumans which represented Best, said: ‘The judgement recognises that making residential squatting a criminal offence was not intended to impact on the law of adverse possession.’