Dorset Yeomanry suported by Humphries Kirk

Signs Prohibiting the use of Land

| Published on July 27, 2016


Humphries Kirk Client Care Briefing for Farmers, Landowners, Owners and Occupiers of Private and Commercial Premises

The case of Winterburn and Another V Bennett and Another in the Court of Appeal (Times Law Report 25 July 2016) provides that signs prohibiting the use of land are successful and adequate to prevent people from acquiring rights of prescription over that land.

In this case the land in question was an open car park that belonged to a club. The club put a sign up saying “private car park for the use of club patrons only by order of the committee”. That sign or a similarly worded sign was in the window of the club overlooking the car park.

The neighbouring fish and chip shop had been established in 1987 and had regularly parked in the car park, ignoring the sign. However the Court of Appeal decided that the existence of the sign was nevertheless quite sufficient to prevent the chip shop owner acquiring prescriptive rights to park in the car park.

The rationale behind the decision is important. Prescriptive rights (rights of way, right to park cars etc.) and establishment of squatters title to land all require occupation or user of the right “as of right” that is to say without force, without secrecy and without permission.

Very often people quite openly use rights of way etc. and do so without any kind of formal permission or secrecy. The Court decided that “without force” does not just mean violence or breaking open gateways, it includes moral force.

Many millions of people in the country own property and do not seek confrontation with their neighbours, indeed they may be frightened to do so and also may not be able to afford to go to Court. The erection and maintenance of an appropriate sign is a peaceful and inexpensive way of making it clear that property is private and not to be used by others. Of course others may ignore that sign but nevertheless the Court decided that they will not be able to ignore the sign and establish a legal right to do what they are actually doing as trespassers.

This means that landowners should continue to be careful to put up signs stating that land is private, stating that car parks are for the use of their clients or customers etc. Those signs are not worthless, they are in fact very valuable and obviously as a matter of evidential quality it is important to put a sign up and take a photograph in order to remember when the sign was put up!

James Selby Bennett

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