Land title rules maintain order

Last week, my colleague Emma Ioane proposed the adoption of a “use it or lose it” principle for abandoned land. Two recent examples in Taranaki have required applications for Court orders for the sale of such land.

It is true that the process of obtaining a court order can be long and costly. However, to simply allow the title of an abandoned plot of land to fall into the ownership of whomever made first use of it would produce a myriad of negative consequences.  

News headlines describing the increasing price of property are customarily splashed over the daily paper, alongside yet another story of a young person’s meticulous savings regime and the resulting purchase of their dream home. Land ownership is part of the kiwi dream, and the further it slips away from the average New Zealander, the more obsessed in it we become. Allowing abandoned property to fall into the ownership of the first occupier directly contradicts the value we place on land.

The inevitable drama as a result of such a policy would by far outweigh any cost benefits. Imagine the descendant of an original owner, attempting to exert ownership from someone who gained the title by possession. Or, the issues in determining the first possessor, in the case of more than one person making use of the land. We could have people racing to find abandoned land and stamp their mark on it in order to gain a title. It all seems rather animalistic.

Adverse possession - more commonly known as squatting - is an obscure and rare area of the law that allows a person who has possessed land continuously for 20 years without objection from the legal owner to apply to Land Information New Zealand for the title to the land. While its use has been infrequent, this law has created problems in the past. It would be nonsensical to place more weight on such an ambiguous principle by incorporating it further into our land laws.

We have land titles and the rules that surround them for a reason - to maintain order and procedure around the ownership of land, and to ensure a claim to ownership is fair. Land is the most valuable commodity in our society and it is important that our laws reflect this. The overall effect of attempting to simplify this one small area of land law would prove to be far more problematic than our current system.

The recent examples of abandoned land can serve as a reminder to farmers to ensure succession plans are up to date. Being proactive about such topics will prevent arguments, contentions, and costly legal processes over land ownership in the future. 

The content of this document is necessarily general and readers should seek specific advice on particular matters and not rely solely on this document. 

If you would like more information on any of the topics in this document, please contact your usual Auld Brewer Mazengarb & McEwen adviser. 

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