|Justice Dalveer Bhandari|
Supreme Court of India
The Supreme Court in State of Haryana v. Mukesh Kumar & Ors. has reiterated the need for a review of the law relating to adverse possession in India. The present case raised a vital question whether the State, which is in charge of protection of life, liberty and property of the people can be permitted to grab the land and property of its own citizens under the banner of the plea of adverse possession? Justice Dalveer Bhandari and Justice Deepak Verma have succinctly traced out the law relating to adverse possession while recommending the abolition of such a law. The relevant extracts from the judgment are as under;
26. In a democracy, governed by rule of law, the task of protecting life and property of the citizens is entrusted to the police department of the government. In the instant case, the suit has been filed through the Superintendent of Police, Gurgaon, seeking right of ownership by adverse possession.
27. The revenue records of the State revealed that the disputed property stood in the name of the defendants. It is unfortunate that the Superintendent of Police, a senior official of the Indian Police Service, made repeated attempts to grab the property of the true owner by filing repeated appeals before different forums claiming right of ownership by way of adverse possession.
28. The citizens may lose faith in the entire police administration of the country that those responsible for the safety and security of their life and property are on a spree of grabing the properties from the true owners in a clandestine manner.
29. A very informative and erudite Article was published in Neveda Law Journal Spring 2007 with the title ‘Making Sense Out of Nonsense: A Response to Adverse Possession by Governmental Entities’. The Article was written by Andrew Dickal. Historical background of adverse possession was discussed in that article.
30. The concept of adverse possession was born in England around 1275 and was initially created to allow a person to claim right of “seisin” from his ancestry. Many felt that the original law that relied on “seisin” was difficult to establish, and around 1623 a statue of limitations was put into place that allowed for a person in possession of property for twenty years or more to acquire title to that property. This early English doctrine was designed to prevent legal disputes over property rights that were time consuming and costly. The doctrine was also created to prevent the waste of land by forcing owners to monitor their property or suffer the consequence of losing title.
31. The concept of adverse possession was subsequently adopted in the United States. The doctrine was especially important in early American periods to cure the growing number of title disputes. The American version mirrored the English law, which is illustrated by most States adopting a twenty-year statue of limitations for adverse possession claims. As America has developed to the present date, property rights have become increasingly more important and land has become limited. As a result, the time period to acquire land by adverse possession has been reduced in some States to as little as five years, while in others, it has remained as long as forty years. The United States has also changed the traditional doctrine by preventing the use of adverse possession against property held by a governmental entity.
32. During the colonial period, prior to the enactment of the Bill of Rights, property was frequently taken by states from private land owners without compensation. Initially, undeveloped tracts of land were the most common type of property acquired by the government, as they were sought for the installation of public road. Under the colonial system it was thought that benefits from the road would, in a newly opened country, always exceed the value of unimproved land.
33. The doctrine of adverse possession arose in an era where lands were vast particularly in the United States of America and documentation sparse in order to give quietus to the title of the possessor and prevent fanciful claims from erupting. The concept of adverse possession exits to cure potential or actual defects in real estate titles by putting a statute of limitation on possible litigation over ownership and possession. A landowner could be secure in title to his land; otherwise, long-lost heirs of any former owner, possessor or lien holder of centuries past could come forward with a legal claim on the property. Since independence of our country we have witnessed registered documents of title and more proper, if not perfect, entries of title in the government records. The situation having changed, the statute calls for a change.
34. In Hemaji Waghaji Jat v. Bhikhabhai Khengarbhai Harijan and Others (2009) 16 SCC 517 (one of us Bhandari, J.), this Court had an occasion to examine the English and American law on “adverse possession”. The relevant paras of that judgment (Paras 24 and 26 to 29) are reproduced as under:
“24. In a relatively recent case in P.T. Munichikkanna Reddy v. Revamma (2007) 6 SCC 59, this Court again had an occasion to deal with the concept of adverse possession in detail. The Court also examined the legal position in various countries particularly in English and American systems. We deem it appropriate to reproduce relevant passages in extenso. The Court dealing with adverse possession in paras 5 and 6 observed as under: (SCC pp. 66-67)
“5. Adverse possession in one sense is based on the theory or presumption that the owner has abandoned the property to the adverse possessor on the acquiescence of the owner to the hostile acts and claims of the person in possession. It follows that sound qualities of a typical adverse possession lie in it being open, continuous and hostile. (See Downing v. Bird 100 So 2d 57 (Fla 1958), Arkansas Commemorative Commission v. City of Little Rock 227, Ark 1085 : 303 SW 2d 569 (1957); Monnot v. Murphy 207 NY 240 : 100 NE 742 (1913); City of Rock Springs v. Sturm 39 Wyo 494 : 273 P 908 : 97 ALR 1 (1929).)
6. Efficacy of adverse possession law in most jurisdictions depends on strong limitation statutes by operation of which right to access the court expires through efflux of time. As against rights of the paper-owner, in the context of adverse possession, there evolves a set of competing rights in favour of the adverse possessor who has, for a long period of time, cared for the land, developed it, as against the owner of the property who has ignored the property. Modern statutes of limitation operate, as a rule, not only to cut off one’s right to bring an action for the recovery of property that has been in the adverse possession of another for a specified time, but also to vest the possessor with title. The intention of such statutes is not to punish one who neglects to assert rights, but to protect those who have maintained the possession of property for the time specified by the statute under claim of right or colour of title. (See American Jurisprudence, Vol. 3, 2d, p. 81. It is important to keep in mind while studying the American notion of adverse possession, especially in the backdrop of limitation statutes, that the intention to dispossess cannot be given a complete go-by. Simple application of limitation shall not be enough by itself for the success of an adverse possession claim.”
35. A person pleading adverse possession has no equities in his favour since he is trying to defeat the rights of the true owner. It is for him to clearly plead and establish all facts necessary to establish adverse possession. Though we got this law of adverse possession from the British, it is important to note that these days English Courts are taking a very negative view towards the law of adverse possession. The English law was amended and changed substantially to reflect these changes, particularly in light of the view that property is a human right adopted by the European Commission.
This Court in Revamma (supra) observed that to understand the true nature of adverse possession, Fairweather v. St Marylebone Property Co  2 WLR 1020 :  2 All ER 288 can be considered where House of Lords referring to Taylor v. Twinberrow  2 K.B. 16 termed adverse possession as a negative and consequential right effected only because somebody else's positive right to access the court is barred by operation of law.
As against the rights of the paper-owner, in the context of adverse possession, there evolves a set of competing rights in favour of the adverse possessor who has, for a long period of time, cared for the land, developed it, as against the owner of the property who has ignored the property.
36. The right to property is now considered to be not only constitutional or statutory right but also a human right. Human rights have already been considered in realm of individual rights such as right to health, right to livelihood, right to shelter and employment etc. But now human rights are gaining a multi faceted dimension. Right to property is also considered very much a part of the new dimension. Therefore, even claim of adverse possession has to be read in that context.
37. The changing attitude of the English Courts is quite visible from the judgment of Beaulane Properties Ltd. v. Palmer (2005) 3 WLR 554. The Court here tried to read the human rights position in the context of adverse possession. But what is commendable is that the dimension of human rights have widened so much that now property dispute issues are also being raised within the contours of human rights. With the expanding jurisprudence of the European Courts of Human Rights, the Court has taken an unkind view to the concept of adverse possession.
38. Paragraphs from 26 to 29 of Hemaji Waghaji Jat (supra) are set out as under:-
26. With the expanding jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights, the Court has taken an unkind view to the concept of adverse possession in the recent judgment of JA Pye (Oxford) Ltd. v. United Kingdom (2005) 49 ERG 90 which concerned the loss of ownership of land by virtue of adverse possession. In the said case, “the applicant company was the registered owner of a plot of 23 hectares of agricultural land. The owners of a property adjacent to the land, Mr and Mrs Graham (the Grahams) occupied the land under a grazing agreement. After a brief exchange of documents in December 1983 a chartered surveyor acting for the applicants wrote to the Grahams noting that the grazing agreement was about to expire and requiring them to vacate the land.” The Grahams continued to use the whole of the disputed land for farming without the permission of the applicants from September 1998 till 1999. In 1997, Mr Graham moved the Local Land Registry against the applicant on the ground that he had obtained title by adverse possession. The Grahams challenged the applicant company’s claims under the Limitation Act, 1980 (the 1980 Act) which provides that a person cannot bring an action to recover any land after the expiration of 12 years of adverse possession by another.
27. The judgment was pronounced in JA Pye (Oxford) Ltd. v. Graham (2000) 3 WLR 242 : 2000 Ch 676. The Court held in favour of the Grahams but went on to observe the irony in law of adverse possession. The court observed that the law which provides to oust an owner on the basis of inaction of 12 years is “illogical and disproportionate”. The effect of such law would “seem draconian to the owner” and “a windfall for the squatter”. The court expressed its astonishment on the prevalent law that ousting an owner for not taking action within limitation is illogical. The applicant company aggrieved by the said judgment filed an appeal and the Court of Appeal reversed the High Court decision. The Grahams then appealed to the House of Lords, which, allowed their appeal and restored the order of the High Court.
28. The House of Lords in JA Pye (Oxford) Ltd. v. Graham (2003) 1 AC 419 : (2002) 3 WLR 221 : (2002) 3 All ER 865 (HL), observed that the Grahams had possession of the land in the ordinary sense of the word, and, therefore, the applicant company had been dispossessed of it within the meaning of the Limitation Act of 1980.
29. We deem it proper to reproduce the relevant portion of the judgment in P.T. Munichikkanna Reddy v. Revamma (2007) 6 SCC 59: (SCC p. 79, paras 51-52)
“51. Thereafter the applicants moved the European Commission of Human Rights (ECHR) alleging that the United Kingdom law on adverse possession, by which they lost land to a neighbour, operated in violation of Article 1 of Protocol 1 to the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (‘the Convention’).
52. It was contended by the applicants that they had been deprived of their land by the operation of the domestic law on adverse possession which is in contravention with Article 1 of Protocol 1 to the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (‘the Convention’), which reads as under:
‘Every natural or legal person is entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of his possession. No one shall be deprived of his possession except in the public interest and subject to the conditions provided for by law and by the general principles of international law.
The preceding provisions shall not, however, in any way impair the right of a State to enforce such laws as it deems necessary to control the use of property in accordance with the general interest or to secure the payment of taxes or other contributions or penalties.’ ”
This Court in Revamma case also mentioned that the European Council of Human Rights importantly laid down three-pronged test to judge the interference of the Government with the right of “peaceful enjoyment of property”: (SCC p. 79, para 53)
“53. ... [In] Beyeler v. Italy [GC] No. 33202 of 1996 §§ 108-14 ECHR 2000-I, it was held that the ‘interference’ should comply with the principle of lawfulness and pursue a legitimate aim (public interest) by means reasonably proportionate to the aim sought to be realised.”
The Court observed:(Revamma case 79-80, paras 54-56)
“54. ... ‘The question nevertheless remains whether, even having regard to the lack of care and inadvertence on the part of the applicants and their advisers, the deprivation of their title to the registered land and the transfer of beneficial ownership to those in unauthorized possession struck a fair balance with any legitimate public interest served.
In these circumstances, the Court concludes that the application of the provisions of the 1925 and 1980 Acts to deprive the applicant companies of their title to the registered land imposed on them an individual and excessive burden and upset the fair balance between the demands of the public interest on the one hand and the applicants’ right to the peaceful enjoyment of their possessions on the other.
There has therefore been a violation of Article 1 of Protocol 1.’
55. The question of the application of Article 41 was referred for the Grand Chamber Hearing of the ECHR. This case sets the field of adverse possession and its interface with the right to peaceful enjoyment in all its complexity.
56. Therefore it will have to be kept in mind the courts around the world are taking an unkind view towards statutes of limitation overriding property rights.”
39. In Hemaji Waghaji Jat case, this Court ultimately observed as under:
“32. Before parting with this case, we deem it appropriate to observe that the law of adverse possession which ousts an owner on the basis of inaction within limitation is irrational, illogical and wholly disproportionate. The law as it exists is extremely harsh for the true owner and a windfall for a dishonest person who had illegally taken possession of the property of the true owner. The law ought not to benefit a person who in a clandestine manner takes possession of the property of the owner in contravention of law. This in substance would mean that the law gives seal of approval to the illegal action or activities of a rank trespasser or who had wrongfully taken possession of the property of the true owner.
33. We fail to comprehend why the law should place premium on dishonesty by legitimising possession of a rank trespasser and compelling the owner to lose his possession only because of his inaction in taking back the possession within limitation.”
Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution – a principle of a civilized society
40. Another important development in the protection of property rights was the Fifth Amendment. James Madison was the drafter and key supporter for the Fifth Amendment. The Fifth Amendment states: “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation”. The main issue is to pay just compensation for acquiring the property. There are primarily two situations when a landowner may obtain compensation for land officially transferred to or depreciated by the government. First, an owner may be entitled to compensation when a governmental entity intentionally acquires private property through a formal condemnation proceeding and without the owner’s consent. The State’s power to take property is considered inherent through its eminent domain powers as a sovereign. Through the condemnation proceedings, the government obtains the necessary interest in the land, and the Fifth Amendment requires that the property owner be compensated for this loss.
41. The second situation requiring compensation under Fifth Amendment occurs when the government has not officially acquired private property through a formal condemnation proceeding, but “nonetheless takes property by physically invading or appropriating it”. Under this scenario, the property owner, at the point in which a “taking” has occurred, has the option of filing a claim against the government actor to recover just compensation for the loss. When the landowner sues the government seeking compensation for a taking, it is considered an inverse condemnation proceeding, because the landowner and not the government is bringing the cause of action.
42. We inherited this law of adverse possession from the British. The Parliament may consider abolishing the law of adverse possession or at least amending and making substantial changes in law in the larger public interest. The Government instrumentalities – including the police – in the instant case have attempted to possess land adversely. This, in our opinion, a testament to the absurdity of the law and a black mark upon the justice system’s legitimacy. The Government should protect the property of a citizen – not steal it. And yet, as the law currently stands, they may do just that. If this law is to be retained, according to the wisdom of the Parliament, then at least the law must require those who adversely possess land to compensate title owners according to the prevalent market rate of the land or property in question. This alternative would provide some semblance of justice to those who have done nothing other than sitting on their rights for the statutory period, while allowing the adverse possessor to remain on property.
While it may be indefensible to require all adverse possessors – some of whom may be poor – to pay market rates for the land they possess, perhaps some lesser amount would be realistic in most of the cases. The Parliament may either fix a set range of rates or to leave it to the judiciary with the option of choosing from within a set range of rates so as to tailor the compensation to the equities of a given case.
43. The Parliament must seriously consider at least to abolish “bad faith” adverse possession, i.e., adverse possession achieved through intentional trespassing. Actually believing it to be their own could receive title through adverse possession sends a wrong signal to the society at large. Such a change would ensure that only those who had established attachments to the land through honest means would be entitled to legal relief.
44. In case, the Parliament decides to retain the law of adverse possession, the Parliament might simply require adverse possession claimants to possess the property in question for a period of 30 to 50 years, rather than a mere 12. Such an extension would help to ensure that successful claimants have lived on the land for generations, and are therefore less likely to be individually culpable for the trespass (although their forebears might). A longer statutory period would also decrease the frequency of adverse possession suits and ensure that only those claimants most intimately connected with the land acquire it, while only the most passive and unprotective owners lose title.
45. Reverting to the facts of this case, if the Police department of the State with all its might is bent upon taking possession of any land or building in a clandestine manner, then, perhaps no one would be able to effectively prevent them.
46. It is our bounden duty and obligation to ascertain the intention of the Parliament while interpreting the law. Law and Justice, more often than not, happily coincide only rarely we find serious conflict. The archaic law of adverse possession is one such. A serious re-look is absolutely imperative in the larger interest of the people.
47. Adverse possession allows a trespasser – a person guilty of a tort, or even a crime, in the eyes of law - to gain legal title to land which he has illegally possessed for 12 years. How 12 years of illegality can suddenly be converted to legal title is, logically and morally speaking, baffling. This outmoded law essentially asks the judiciary to place its stamp of approval upon conduct that the ordinary Indian citizen would find reprehensible.
48. The doctrine of adverse possession has troubled a great many legal minds. We are clearly of the opinion that time has come for change.
49. If the protectors of law become the grabbers of the property (land and building), then, people will be left with no protection and there would be a total anarchy in the entire country.
50. It is indeed a very disturbing and dangerous trend. In our considered view, it must be arrested without further loss of time in the larger public interest. No Government Department, Public Undertaking, and much less the Police Department should be permitted to perfect the title of the land or building by invoking the provisions of adverse possession and grab the property of its own citizens in the manner that has been done in this case.
51. In our considered view, there is an urgent need for a fresh look of the entire law on adverse possession. We recommend the Union of India to immediately consider and seriously deliberate either abolition of the law of adverse possession and in the alternate to make suitable amendments in the law of adverse possession. A copy of this judgment be sent to the Secretary, Ministry of Law and Justice, Department of Legal Affairs, Government of India for taking appropriate steps in accordance with law.