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Disputed boundaries

QUESTION: Which takes precedence - the title deeds or the Land Register? Our property is unregistered. Our deeds say that we own 240ft of land. The site plan clearly identifies the boundary in feet from a fixed point. When we bought our property, the previous owner retained some land at the rear. Twenty years later, the previous owner's son registered this land for the first time. The Land Registry gave him absolute title both to that land and to 100ft of our land, despite what it says on our title deeds. I was under the impression that title deeds were everything. If they are unambiguous, how can they be disputed 20 years on?

This is a chick-and-egg question. The strict position is that your neighbour's registered title takes precedence, but the register can be altered to reflect the title deeds. If you apply to the Land Registry to alter the register in your favour, it will generally refer the dispute to an adjudicator for an independant ruling. The adjudicator will first have to decide where the deeds intended the boundary to be. Plans can be vague and lawyers and surveyors sometimes make mistakes when they draw up deeds. The adjudicator will look at any plans, but he will also want to know what fences, hedges and other features were on the ground to establish what the parties meant when the deeds were drawn up.

Assuming you are right that the deeds say you own the land, what then? There are several legal arguments that could still stop you recovering it. For example, if your neighbour fenced off the land before 1992, he may well have acquired title by "adverse possession". If none of thse arguments arise, Schedule 5 to the Land Registration Act 2002 allows the adjudicator to alter the register. In a recent case in Derbyshire, the High Court said that the adjudicator should normally use his discretion to do so. However, the adjudicator may refuse: for example, it may be unfair if the neighbour innocently built on the land without you objecting.

Deeds therefore aren't everything, but they may be enough to get you back your land.

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