Saturday 14 May 2016

Pensioner's anger as squatter wins right to keep his £400,000 house... and homeowner also faces losing his flat to pay legal bills

Pensioner's anger as squatter wins right to keep his £400,000 house
A pensioner who lost his empty house to a squatter branded the law ‘an ass’ yesterday after a judge dealt a final blow to his hopes of seizing back control.
Colin Curtis, 80, also now faces losing the modest one-bedroom flat he lives in because he could have to pay both parties’ legal costs.
The decision upholds a landmark ruling in favour of Keith Best, who took over the house, which was seen as a victory for squatters’ rights. 
‘It’s not fair. The law is an ass,’ Mr Curtis said. ‘It’s like someone getting in your car then saying it’s theirs because they’re sitting in it.’

The saga began when builder Mr Best, 47, quietly began renovating the three-bedroom, semi-detached house in 1997. 
It had been left empty after Mr Curtis moved out a year earlier, when he inherited another property from an aunt.
Mr Best then moved into the £400,000 house in 2012, and later that year submitted an application for adverse possession – under which a trespasser can win rights to somewhere they do not legally own. 

He was initially turned down by the Chief Land Registrar as his claim came just a few weeks after squatting was criminalised under Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act.
However this was overruled by the High Court in 2014, with the judge saying previous legislation which treated squatting as a civil matter should apply. 
Mr Curtis, who had been unable to visit the property, had no idea what had happened until the Daily Mail approached him at the time.

He then launched a counter-claim for the property in Newbury Park, North-East London, but this has now been dismissed on a technicality.
‘People can’t believe it when I tell them,’ Mr Curtis said. ‘They don’t understand how anyone could get away with it.’
Mr Curtis – who lives in sheltered accommodation in Romford – is now waiting to see if he will have to pay Mr Best’s legal costs of £37,000, as well as his own. 
‘I could lose my home if I have to pay his costs,’ he said. ‘I’d need to sell it.’
Squatting was made a criminal offence in England and Wales in September 2012. To do it in a residential building can lead to six months in prison, as well as a £5,000 fine.
However before it was criminalised, squatters could claim ownership of a property by living in it for a certain period of time.
If the land was unregistered, a trespasser could claim rights to it after 12 years of so-called ‘adverse possession’. If registered, they could apply to be owner after occupying it for ten years. The original owner had up to two years to obtain possession – but if this did not happen, the squatter remained in possession.
Keith Best’s attempt to register ownership of Colin Curtis’ house was initially blocked because it was made a few weeks after the law was changed.
However he was then granted ownership in a High Court ruling in 2014.
The judge said previous legislation – which treated squatting as a civil matter – should apply.

The house in Newbury originally belonged to widow Doris Curtis, who died in the late 1980s aged 88. Her divorced son Colin then stayed there until the mid-Nineties.
Despite moving out, the former Tube station kiosk owner continued paying council tax until six years ago, when he received a letter from Redbridge Council saying it was no longer necessary.

Mr Curtis, who suffers from heart problems, assumed it was to do with the state of the property and was never able to visit. 
His son and daughter were dead by then and he had no other family close by.
After learning of Mr Best’s claim, he lodged a complaint with the Property Chamber at the Land Registration First-Tier Tribunal. 
But Judge Elizabeth Cooke denied his application to take back control of the property on the basis that he was not a registered administrator of his mother’s estate.
Mrs Curtis had died without a will and her son had not realised he had to apply to become an administrator.

Mullis & Peake, the solicitors for Mr Curtis, said the outcome was ‘very disappointing’. Mr Best declined to comment.
Ilford South Labour MP Mike Gapes said: ‘There is law and there is justice and they are, unfortunately, sometimes very different things.’
Mr Curtis receives just £261 each week from his state pension and benefits and has no private pension. 

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