In St Pancras & Humanist HA v Leonard  EWCA Civ 1442, the Court of Appeal held that, although Mr Leonard had possession of the relevant property (a garage), he nevertheless was estopped from claiming a right by adverse possession against the Claimant. The case is interesting largely because of the way the CA deployed estoppel to defeat the claim despite Mr Leonard having the relevant intention to possess.
In brief, the facts were that Mr Leonard (described variously as a “seasoned squatter” and “a coloniser – maybe a closet coloniser”) and colleagues occupied a couple of properties owned by LB Camden and which they were going to demolish in 1975. The properties had large (by London standards) gardens and the garage was located at the end of one of the gardens. It appears that Mr Leonard put a lock on the garage at this time, thus establishing the relevant intention and factual possession. Other residents did use the garage to store their stuff but this was held to be either with his permission or otherwise insufficient to destroy the requisite intention. The properties were bought from Camden by a co-op in 1985, organised by residents, squatters and others, and subsequently ended up in the hands of the Claimant in 1999, which wanted to demolish the garage. Mr Leonard claimed an interest by adverse possession which would have amounted to an overriding interest (under the pre-2002 Act) against the Claimant. The problem for Mr Leonard was that minutes of the Co-op board, on which he sat, disclosed that, as the Recorder had put it, by his silence and going along with the proposals encouraged the co-op “to enter into negotiations with Camden on the basis that this garage would become part of the leasehold property that was being obtained in 1995, with the obvious consequence that it would be available communally.” This was the basis for the proprietary estoppel that was relied on by the Claimant. As such, there was a clear representation and detriment.
Mr Leonard’s argument was that he didn’t know the law on adverse possession and therefore was unaware of his possessory right in law to the garage at that time. The CA found that, although that was a correct statement of principle, it was irrelevant in this case because, on the facts, he did believe that he had exclusive possession of the garage, believed that right would continue after the co-op acquired the lease, and, despite those beliefs, encouraged the co-op to enter into negotiations for its purchase with Camden. Indeed, the Recorder had found that it was “quite extraordinary that any right-thinking person, believing that they had a right of the kind which Mr Leonard now says he believed he had, even if only to possession, would not have mentioned that. Those attending the meeting would have formed the same view and would have proceeded in the general belief that they were negotiating for a lease that would give them actual control and possession of the garage, according to the interest being created.” All of this seems quite sensible, but I’m left feeling a little uneasy by the decision because, if he didn’t know that he had an enforceable right, how could he sensibly encourage the co-op either way but maybe I’m just a little old-fashioned in a kind of Willmott v Barber way.