Two recent cases in the media involving squatters have demonstrated how things can go wrong when you don’t take the proper steps to protect your property rights.

Powell v. Thorne

 
The first involved a cattle grazier (Mr Powell) who owned 400 hectares, west of Brisbane. Mr Powell decided to help a friend out (Mr Thorne). Mr Thorne’s house was washed away in the 2011 Brisbane floods and so Mr Powell allowed him to come and live on part of his property for a while. They verbally agreed that Mr Thorne did not need to pay any rent or bond.
 
Mr Thorne moved onto the property and initially lived in a caravan. He eventually built a shack on the property and continued to add extensions to this shack including installing solar panels for electricity.
 
Mr Powell understood the arrangement to be that Mr Thorne would move out on being given 6 months’ notice to leave. Mr Thorne resided at the property for the next 6 years.
 
During the drought, Mr Powell suffered financial hardship and was forced to place the property on the market. He found a buyer and the contract entered into with the buyer was subject to the buyer being granted ‘vacant possession’. Mr Powell provided Mr Thorne the 6 months’ notice to vacate and Mr Thorne ignored it and refused to leave.
 
Mr Thorne placed locks on the gates to prevent anyone else from entering the property. Mr Powell issued two further notices for him to vacate, that were also ignored. Mr Powell eventually took the matter to the Queensland Civil and Administration Tribunal (QCAT) to apply for an order to make Mr Thorne vacate the property. In the meantime, the buyer terminated the contract. There is no reported judgement to indicate whether Mr Thorne was ordered to vacate the property.
 
This case illustrates the importance of obtaining legal advice and having a proper lease or contract drawn up to set out the parties’ rights and obligations towards each other clearly. If a lease had been put in place, Mr Powell would have had more success in having Mr Thorne vacate the premises when required.
 

McFarland v. Gertos

This case involved a NSW Property Developer (Mr Gertos) who came across a vacant and ‘abandoned’ property in Sydney in 1998. Mr Gertos changed the locks to the house and commenced repairs and renovations which cost him $35,000.00. He then rented the property. In 2014 (16 years later) Mr Gertos attended to further renovations which cost him $108,000.00. 

The property, that was said to be worth around $1.6 million was owned by Mr Downie, who had died in 1947 without leaving a Will. No representative was appointed to Mr Downie’s estate and his children were unaware of the existence of the property.
 
In 2017 Mr Gertos applied to the Registrar-General to be named the owner of the land under the “Squatting Laws”. As Mr Gertos had been in physical possession of the property for more than 12 years and the owner did not enforce their rights of possession against him when they were entitled to, Mr Gertos was awarded lawful title to the property.
 
Mr Gertos’ application in 2017 alerted Mr Downie’s family to the existence of the property. They lodged an objection to the NSW Supreme Court to Mr Gertos receiving title to the property. The objection was rejected and Mr Downie’s family were ordered to pay Mr Gertos’ legal costs to defend the claim.
 
Mr Gertos’ success in his application was thanks to the Limitation Act (NSW). Queensland’s equivalent is the Limitations of Actions Act (Qld). Section 13 of this Act says that “an action shall not be brought by a person to recover land after the expiration of 12 years from the date on which the right of action accrued to the person…”
 
This case illustrates the importance of ensuring that a deceased’s estate is properly administered including ensuring you discover and deal with any property owned by the deceased promptly.
 

Summary

 
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The content of this column is to provide a general guide on this topic. Professional advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.