Theft Is Property

If MPs really want to repeal the statute of limitations, they’ll find themselves in deeper water than they think

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 18th July 1996.

For the last fortnight, the assorted voices of reason have been in uproar about the strange case of the owner occupier squatters. In 1977, Jim Sykes and Sheila Fahy slipped into a derelict house in Islington. They lived, according to the Daily Mail, like ghosts, neither tending the front garden nor putting out rubbish, but they registered the property as their address. They acquired “possessory title” and, a few weeks ago, sold the house for £103,000.

The case has now been complicated by the discovery on the part of the sedulous Sunday Times of the original owner of the property, some poor old chap who, like Tess of the D’Urbervilles, was probably perfectly happy until he was told he should have been entitled to greater things. He said he would be seeking legal advice to establish his rights. He does not seem to have much of a case. According to the 1980 Limitation Act, “No action shall be brought by any person to recover any land after the expiration of twelve years from the date on which the right of action accrued to him”. Mr Rosamond let his chance slip by in 1989.

MPs are reported to be outraged, and are making “angry demands for a change in the law.” They are on dangerous ground. The Palace of Westminster is stuffed with landowners whose family fortunes were built on the statute of limitation. Many of the commoners, copyholders and small freeholders who were divested of their rights by enclosure had a solid legal case for retaining their land, but no practical means of fighting it. In the Scottish Highlands, thousands of cottars and runrig commoners were shoved off by the ancestors of some of our noble lords at the point of a pike, and forced onto ships bound for the Americas. The great-grandchildren of some of these dispossessed are still alive today.

All landownership is, of course, in one way or another questionable. How many legal rights were thrust aside or superceded by William I’s seizure of England? Or by the Belgae’s dispossession of the former inhabitants of Kent? The notion of the absolute ownership of land and standing property is a comparatively novel one, even in many parts of Britain.

While the MPs gallantly clamouring for the rights of Mr Rosamund might be quietly nudged by their more calculating colleagues, some of their constituents could stir up a lively fuss. The Advisory Service for Squatters reports that most enquiries about the use of the Limitation Act come from middle class owner occupiers who have surreptitiously extended their gardens onto derelict land or into a deceased neighbour’s field.

The historical limitation of land claims is an explosive issue all over the world. Germany’s reunification treaty allowed for the return of property seized by the Nazis up until 1945, and the communists from 1948 onwards, but not for the restitution of land expropriated by the Soviet occupation of 1945-1948. Six years on, the former owners are still fighting furiously for recognition.

In South Africa, the Department of Land Affairs – which is handing back land seized by the apartheid government – has decided to consider only those claims arising since 1913. It has so far resisted several applications dating back to the 17th century. In the former Yugoslavia, just as much as on the West Bank, historical assertions and refutations of ownership are among the sources of enduring conflict.

The Helms-Burton law currently pitting the United States against its trading partners is all about old land claims – it imposes penalties on foreign companies owning property in Cuba which was seized from US companies or citizens during the revolution in 1959. The legislation begs the question of how the plaintiffs got their land in the first place. Expropriation and fraud were, of course, the means by which all white landownership in the Americas and Caribbean was established.

All over the world, statutes of limitation were devised to support landowners’ claims against those of the dispossessed. But as most of the major land-grabbing in Britain was completed long ago, the progressive way to change the law may be to reduce, rather than extend the period of limitation. Jim Paton of the Advisory Service for Squatters suggests six years, which would bring land law into line with laws governing other forms of property. This might encourage the socially beneficial functions of squatting, pulling empty and derelict houses back into circulation.

But if MPs really do want to go ahead and repeal the Limitation Act, then let them, and we’ll all have fun scouring our family trees for evidence of peasant proprietorship in the eleventh century. It would be optimistic, however, to expect the owner occupiers on whose behalf they have been huffing to thank them for it.