Thirty five years ago, a farmer signed an Agreement for Sale and Purchase to buy a property next to his farm.  However, the Vendor moved overseas before the title could be transferred to the farmer’s name and the Vendor could not be located since.

The farmer had moved into the property at the time, as the house on the land was better than the house on his own farm, but he did not have legal ownership of the land.

He was technically a ‘squatter’ on the land and sought legal advice to find out if ‘squatter’s rights’ exist in New Zealand.

The answer is that squatter’s rights do exist. Although rare, there are cases of squatters being able to legally acquire ownership of the land which they occupy.  This is based on ‘adverse possession’ rights. 

Adverse possession is an ancient and contentious piece of law concerning the acquisition of land.   Adverse possession is now more commonly referred to as “squatting”. 

Persons are able to apply to the Registrar General of Land to have their possession converted to ownership.

Adverse possession applies to all land in a title, for example, in situations where the registered proprietor has abandoned the land and the “squatter” has held possession for a lengthy period of time. 

The Registrar General of Land is able to cancel the existing title (for the land that the applicant has been adversely occupying) and replace it with one issued in the name of the applicant, if they can show that they have had continuous possession of the land for 20 years, and that they continue to possess the land. 

“Continuous possession” can be shown in instances where the land has been fenced off, where cattle have been grazed on it, or in the instance of squatting, where the applicant has lived in the house continuously for 20 years. 

This requirement of continuous possession means that applicants are not able to retrospectively claim possession if a house has been abandoned for 20 years and they wish to move in.

If an application and the supporting evidence establish adverse possession, notice must be given and the application served on any relevant parties.  The possession notice will be published at least twice in the local newspaper and made available to any person who may have a claim in the land.

Instances where adverse possession or “squatters’ rights” have been granted in New Zealand are very rare as there is a very high bar to achieving such rights, but many are unaware that there is a statutory right for squatters to gain ownership of land.  

In the above scenario the farmer had occupied the land for thirty-five years and therefore had met the requirement for continuous possession and was eligible to make an application for adverse possession to obtain legal ownership of the land.