A family has won a claim to ownership of part of a lane behind one of Causeway Bay's best-known plazas.
The decision by the Court of Appeal yesterday means an earlier order to vacate the entire lane behind Lee Theatre Plaza will exclude two corners where the family lived and ran small businesses.
Lam Chim-ching and her two sons Tong Wah-jor and Tong Wah-hei won the sites under the rule of adverse possession in which a person who occupies a site for a specified period without the owner's objection can claim ownership.
But the court rejected their claim to the entire lane, saying that as it was also used by pedestrians they could not claim exclusive possession.
Plaza owner Lee Theatre Realty, a unit of Hysan Development, said it would study the ruling but warned that the lane must be cleared of obstructions so it can be used for access.
The Court of First Instance in December 2009 ordered the family, who have occupied the lane since the 1970s, to yield possession to the company.
In a written judgment yesterday, appeal judge Peter Cheung Chak-yau said the boarding-up at night of the two corners showed the family's intention to exclusively possess those specific parts of the lane.
"During the day, in order to carry out business at the stalls, the boards had to be dismantled," Mr Justice Cheung wrote in the 19-page judgment. "But this does not mean that the defendants did not have exclusive possession of the area covered by these two stalls."
The judge accepted evidence that the family had been in possession of the two areas since the mid-1970s, more than the 20-year requirement to establish adverse possession.
The court also heard that Lam and her husband had lived in the lane since 1961 and raised eight children there.
Under the law, squatters who claim ownership of a private property must have occupied the property for at least 12 years if they began their occupation after July 1, 1991, or 20 years if they did so before that.
Rejecting their claim to the whole lane, Cheung wrote that "if pedestrians could use and actually used the lane for access throughout the day, then this is certainly material upon which the judge could find that the defendants did not have exclusive possession of the whole area".
Lee Theatre Realty said the ruling would not affect the operation of the plaza.
The L-shaped lane leads from Matheson Street to the rear of Percival Street.
Booths surrounded by hoardings were seen at the site yesterday with furniture, electrical appliances and a spiritual tablet.
Lam and her sons could not be reached for comment.
The court heard that the family from time to time had operated various businesses on the site, including an estate agency and decoration shop as well as the snack stall Tong Hung Kee and an aquarium. In 1989, some family members moved to a public housing estate on Lantau Island while others remained at the lane, the court was told.