Does mooring a houseboat on the same spot of a river bank for 12 years mean that you effectively own that spot of the river bank? Or does it belong to the local authority? And what happens when that ownership is disputed? Trainee solicitor, Catriona Connor, explains what happened in a recent court case.

Recently, the Port of London Authority applied to the Land Registry to register its title (to essentially declare ownership) over an area of the Thames riverbed.

Paul Mendoza had been living on a houseboat for the past 12 years and had consistently moored his boat in the same mooring area – this was the same area of riverbed that the Port of London were attempting to register as belonging to it.

Mr Mendoza objected to the Authority’s application. He claimed that by occupying his houseboat in this same area for the past 12 years, he and his predecessor had acquired title to that area by adverse possession.

To successfully claim adverse possession, there are two essential elements to consider. One of these is ‘factual possession’ – the uninterrupted, appropriate and exclusive degree of physical control over the land – and the other is ‘intention to possess’ the land.

The case went to the Upper Tribunal, who had to consider whether Mr. Mendoza had acquired a ‘squatters title’ to this part of the riverbed or whether the Authority could register a title themselves.

The outcome

For Mr. Mendoza to be successful, he had to establish both of the above elements across the 12 years.

Because Mr. Mendoza had dealt with the area of riverbed on which his boat was moored as occupying owners might’ve been expected to, the Court ruled that he was able to demonstrate ‘factual possession’ over the land.

However, Mr. Mendoza could not demonstrate an intention to possess the land on which the boat was moored. When it comes to intention, actions speak louder than words. It is not enough for an intention to be held; it must be demonstrated to the world (as far as reasonably possible). Therefore, Mr Mendoza’s statement – that he had always intended to possess the land on which his boat was moored – was not enough.

In most cases, what a person does to obtain factual possession will be an action that demonstrates his intention to possess. To illustrate this, the court gave the example of a squatter who fences off a field and locks the gate, clearly demonstrating that his intention is to keep people out. His actions are unambiguous and open to no other interpretation.

By contrast, there were four alternative interpretations open to the public in order to explain Mr Mendoza’s actions in mooring his houseboat. These were:

  • that he had an easement (a right to cross or otherwise use someone else's land for a specified purpose)
  • that the London Borough of Hounslow had permitted it
  • that he was exercising public navigation rights (including the right to moor for a short period
  • that he was a persistent trespasser.

This meant that, although Mr Mendoza might have had the intention to possess, he did not demonstrate it to the world.

Mr Mendoza argued that occupying his boat as a home was unambiguous evidence of his intention to possess the area of riverbed on which it was moored. The court rejected this argument because a houseboat is not conventional bricks and mortar. It may easily be moved to a new location and so the public cannot be sure that any occupation is intended to be permanent.

The court acknowledged the difficulty facing people in Mr Mendoza’s position and chose not to deal with how one might go about demonstrating an intention to the world. This is unfortunate, as it leaves this unenviable task for a future court to grapple with.

Some comfort might be found in the submissions of counsel for the Port of London Authority. Mr Stonor QC suggested that a person in Mr Mendoza’s position might demonstrate an intention to the world by putting up a sign saying ‘private land and mooring’, or by erecting a permanent construction on the river bed to support the moored boat.

If you think you may have a claim for adverse possession, our Property Disputes lawyers have expertise in this area and can be contacted here.