Law task force seeks crackdown on squatters

Proposed changes would ease obligation on owners to remain vigilant about occupation

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 December, 2012, 3:43am

The Law Reform Commission wants to make it harder for squatters to take legal possession of an unused property, as part of ongoing amendments to a land registration system for Hong Kong.

The task force released a consultation paper yesterday on reforming the legal doctrine of adverse possession, also known as squatters' rights. It states that if a property is not used by its owner, and if another person has used it for at least 12 years without objection - or 60 years in the case of government land - that user can claim ownership.

In its preliminary proposals yesterday, the commission said the doctrine should be changed so that squatters would, in the 10th year of their occupation, have to declare to the legal owner their intention to take possession of the property in two years. Such a rule would change the spirit of the adverse possession doctrine, which puts the onus on owners to be vigilant about their property.

The commission proposed that if the original owner does not raise objections within the two subsequent years, the squatter would then be entitled to make a second application for registration as owner of the property. It would be referred to an adjudicator for resolution.

The commission's recommendations were made against a backdrop of ongoing changes to the Land Titles Ordinance, which was enacted in 2004. The ordinance was meant to establish an authoritative new land register that people can check to confirm property ownership, giving security to owners and buyers. The new system will replace the century-old "register of deeds", which does not guarantee that registered title documents are valid because the Land Registry does not investigate them.

Edward Chan King-sang, chairman of the commission's adverse possession sub-committee, said the proposed changes would better protect the rights of legal property owners and make it harder for squatters to lay claim to land.

The consultation paper read: "When a registered title regime is in place … adverse possession alone should not extinguish the title to a registered estate."

From 2002 to last year, almost 100 applications for adverse possession were filed for New Territories land and 33 for urban land, with 76 cases decided in favour of landowners and 46 for squatters.

In a high-profile case in 2006, the Court of Final Appeal ruled unanimously in favour of two squatters on five plots owned by Henderson Land chairman Lee Shau-kee. The plots covered about 121,000 sq ft in the hills behind Tai Po, and were valued at HK$36 million. The squatters had been living there since 1961.

"The government should step up its efforts to address the boundary problems in the New Territories," the subcommittee advised, referring to demarcations that often differed from the government's survey plans drawn up in the 1900s. But the task force said it would be difficult.

The public consultation on the proposals lasts until March.