A few bits of decaying equipment and a caretaker’s occasional visits were insufficient to establish that an industrial site was actually occupied. The Court of Appeal came to that important conclusion in ruling that the apparently abandoned site reverted to Crown ownership when its corporate registered owner was dissolved.
An Isle of Man company transferred ownership of the site to an English company. The transfer was genuine and properly executed but was not registered at the Land Registry. The Isle of Man company, which thus remained the site’s registered owner, was later dissolved. On the basis that it had obtained title to the site on the Isle of Man company’s dissolution, the Crown sold it for £5,000 to a purchaser who was subsequently registered as its owner under a new title number.
The English company’s claim that it was entitled to be registered as sole proprietor of the site hinged on whether it was in actual occupation of the land at the time of the purchaser’s registration. Following a trial, it lost the argument on that point and a judge granted the purchaser a possession order.
Dismissing the English company’s appeal against that outcome, the Court noted that some physical presence, with a degree of permanence and continuity, is required to establish actual occupation of land. The judge had reached a rational conclusion that neither an unpaid caretaker’s intermittent visits to the site for his own purposes, nor the presence of an immovable digger and two apparently disused shipping containers, was sufficient to establish actual occupation. Anyone inspecting the site would have concluded that it had been abandoned.
The Court found that, in the absence of actual occupation by the English company, the site passed to the Crown by escheat, one of the last relics of feudalism still to be found in English law. Escheat is based on the principle that all land in England is owned by the Crown and that no land can be without an owner. When the Isle of Man company ceased to exist on dissolution, therefore, the site’s freehold was terminated and it reverted to the Crown.