When is a boundary not a boundary?

5th Apr 2018

It is a common perception amongst owners of registered land that the title plan held by the Land Registry is determinative of the boundaries of their property. However, this is not the case, and many clients are surprised to be told that this is almost meaningless.

In fact, when you are considering whether your boundary is in the correct place and, if not, whether it is worth litigating the matter, we first need to understand what you mean by the “boundary”. This is a term that could have 4 different meanings, depending on whether you are looking at the deeds, the Land Registry title plan, the physical features on the land, such as a hedge, or the “legal” boundary.

The Land Registry title plan is in fact not the best starting point. The only purpose of this plan is to identify the parcel of land; it does not determine the precise boundaries. The first place to look is the title deeds, ideally the transfer which first split the land. This should contain both a written description of the piece of land in question, and a plan. This is what is often referred to as the “paper” boundary.

When a boundary dispute is before the court, the role of the court is to determine the “legal” boundary. This may or may not be the same as the “paper” boundary, depending on

(a) whether the “paper” boundary is sufficiently clearly described in the deeds; and
(b) whether the “paper” boundary has been varied, either by a boundary agreement between the parties or, more commonly, a claim by one of the parties that their use and occupation of an area of land outside of their “paper” title entitles them to be registered as the owner of that land under the rules of adverse possession.

Of course, title deeds are not always as clear as we would wish in defining the extent of the boundaries. Of frequent frustration to property litigators and courts alike is the phrase “for the purpose of identification only, more particularly delineated in the attached plan”, a phrase which has been described as “mutually stultifying”. It is therefore also permissible to rely on evidence of topographical features that were in place as at the date of the conveyance. An unlikely but often invaluable source of such evidence is family photographs which were taken for unrelated purposes, such as birthdays or weddings. These often have physical features of the land in the background, and if the occasion at which the photograph was taken is known, its date can be determined. Therefore, have a look through the family album before seeking legal advice! Other useful sources of evidence may be records held by the local authority, or any information held by local historical societies.

Boundary disputes are notoriously acrimonious and expensive, and the above is only a brief overview to demonstrate that they are rarely as “cut and dry” as parties often believe at the outset. It is vital to consider all of the relevant evidence at an early stage so that the merits of your case can be assessed before legal costs increase significantly and proper consideration can be given to alternative dispute resolution and maybe an offer to settle.

The property litigation team at Rogers & Norton are experienced in dealing with a range of disputes relating to both commercial and residential property, including boundary disputes. If you are considering bringing a claim, or are already in dispute with your neighbour, we would be pleased to assist you. Please contact Elizabeth Gibson at eg@rogers-norton.co.uk or on 01603 675641.