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QUESTION: I am buying a property. There is a strip at the side, which the sellers say they have occupied since 1975, but it is registered as part of the next-door neighbour's land. Is it safe to go ahead?

Yes. Surprisingly it could be safe, following a recent human rights case in Strasbourg. In Pye v the Crown (30.08.07), the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights decided that the UK's rules for acquiring title by adverse possession do not, after all, breach the European Convention on Human Rights.

So what are those rules? The Limitation Act 1980 gives legal ownership to a squatter after 12 years. Changes enacted in October 2003 make it easier for the landowner to get the land back if the squatter did not complete 12 years' squatting before that date.

But where the squatter occupied for a full 12 years before the 2003 cut-off date, its right to ownership is absolute, even if the landowner is registered as proprietor at the Land Registry.

JA Pye (Oxford) lost the ownership of fields that had claimed development value of £21m adter a squatter occupied them without Pye's consent for more than 12 years, from 1985.

After losing in the House of Lords, Pye took its case to Strasbourg. In 2005, it won an initial ruling that the UK's adverse possession rules were an unjustified deprivation of its property and, therefore, a breach of human rights. Now the Grand Chamber has overturned that decision and upheld the UK system.

In your case, as in Pye's, the sellers appear to have completed 12 years' squatting long before 2003. Assuming they can prove that, this means they are entitled to be registered as legal owners of the strip and to sell that right to you.

But if the strip of land has real importance to the site, you might want to think about making the purchase conditional on the registration of the sellers as proprietor before you complete. As an alternative, insurance may be available.

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