Landowners will be reassured by a recent Court of Appeal decision, confirming that landowners should not have to take costly and confrontational action to defend their property. Signs clearly stating that the property is private and not for use by the public should, in most cases, suffice.
The case concerned the use of a car park by the owners, customers and suppliers of a fish and chip shop. The car park was owned by a Conservative Club Association (the Club), but had been used for a period of over twenty years by the fish and chip shop. They, therefore, claimed that they had acquired a legal right to use the car park by virtue of long use, or prescription.
The Court of Appeal had to decide what steps the Club had to take to prevent the fish and chip shop using the car park to avoid a right by prescription from arising. There was a sign that stated "Private car park. For the use of Club patrons only, By order of the Committee." Was this enough? Or, did the Club have to do more? Did the Club have to back up the signs by a physical obstruction, or legal action?
The Court of Appeal decided that signage was sufficient. Lord Justice David Richards stated that "the law of property should not require confrontation in order for people to retain and defend what is theirs. The erection and maintenance of an appropriate sign is a peaceful and inexpensive means of making clear that the property is private and not to be used by others. I do not see why those who choose to ignore such signs should thereby be entitled to obtain legal rights over the land."
The decision will be welcomed by landowners who are dealing with unauthorised parking or other continuing trespass on their land. If such unlawful uses were to be given legal force, the landowner's use of its property would be affected. Third party rights can reduce the value of land and impede development.
Whilst displaying prominent signs should be enough for landowners to prevent the acquisition of third party rights, landowners should not be complacent. Putting up a sign is not the end of the matter. Landowners need to ensure that any signs are placed in a prominent position so that third parties can see them. They must also be checked regularly to ensure that they are not being removed or tampered with.
Contributor: Alexandra Holsgrove Jones
This publication is intended for general guidance and represents our understanding of the relevant law and practice as at June 2016. Specific advice should be sought for specific cases. For more information see our terms & conditions.