By Adverse Possession One can Seek Declaration of Title

In adverse possession an owner loses his property

Adverse possession is a kind of possession of land where a person not having legal title to the land enters and occupies the land for long period with no continuing permission of the legal owner and the true owner subsequently loses his ownership rights after a legally permissible period of his inaction in recovering the possession from the possessor.

The owner might have initially permitted the possessor in entering the land on the basis of a lease or licence.

In adverse possession the possessor becomes the owner

In law, possession itself is a prima facie proof of ownership or right on property. Possession gives a presumption of ownership, which can be challenged by rebuttal evidence.

Since the true owner cannot evict a possessor of property after a long period of non-possession, an actual possessor who sets up a claim for the property exclusively on the basis of his adverse possession for long becomes a legally valid title holder of the property. It is called adverse possession.

Law allows possessor for long to become owner

Indian law allows the adverse possessor (called the disseisor), who holds no ownership of an immovable property, to get its ownership/title after a prescribed statutory period of limitation, of 12 years in case of private land or 30 years in case of a government land.

This happens when the owner’s legal right to recover the property comes to an end by efflux of time, and the possessor becomes eligible for ownership of the title.

Characteristics of adverse possession

In order to treat any possession as adverse, the possession should be open, uninterrupteduncontestedhostile and exclusive by a possessor for a prescribed limitation period. The claimant must occupy the property by knowing fully that he does not have any legal right to possess or occupy that property. The trespasser must have intention to acquire title to the property by adverse possession against the true owner. In such a case, it becomes impossible for the true owner to recover the property in accordance with law.

The adverse possession must be actual possession. It must be evinced by exercising activities such as construction of house, erection of shed or some structure, fencing the property, grazing cattle in the land, farming and harvesting of crop in the land, planting and cutting trees etc. for the entire period of limitation. The claimant must be in sole physical possession of the property against the legal claim, right and title of the true owner or any other claimant. Development of the land, construction of house and erecting boundary walls are examples of exclusive possession and the possession must not be a pseudo or token one.

In such a case the owner’s negligence in taking action when someone else unlawfully asserts his right on the property becomes the limiting factor which is unacceptable in law. The right the possessor gains over the true owner stems solely from the owner’s negligence.

However, law does not recognize adverse possession by force or stealth. When a cause of action exists for the owner to recover the property and no action is taken to recover the possession during the period of limitation, the right of the owner to title will get extinguished.

Then the possessor gets the prescriptive title by transfer of ownership on the basis of adverse possession. The possessing rights therein get transformed to ownership to the possessory owner.

The Rationale of adverse possession

The rationale for adverse possession rests broadly on the considerations that title to land should not remain unclaimed for so long. The society will benefit from someone making use of the land which the owner leaves idle. Such an occupant needs to be recognized as its owner in order to protect the interest of the society.

In other words, law does not support the person who sleeps over his/her property rights for long. The title holder who neglects his rights over the land for long does not deserve any protection of law.

After the lapse of the limitation period for eviction, the true owner ceases to have any right to initiate legal proceedings to recover the possession of his property. Consequently, the trespasser acquires the title of that property by adverse or hostile possession.

The law of adverse possession is based on the presumption that the owner has acquiescence to the hostile acts and claims of the person in possession and has abandoned the property to the adverse possessor.

SC says the possessor has a positive intent

In P.T. Munichikkanna Reddy & Ors v Revamma and Ors, the Supreme Court (SC) held, “adverse possession is a right which comes into play not just because someone loses his right to reclaim the property out of continuous and wilful neglect but also on account of possessor’s positive intent to dispossess. Therefore, it is important to take into account before stripping somebody of his lawful title, whether there is an adverse possessor worthy and exhibiting more urgent and genuine desire to dispossess and step into the shoes of the paper-owner of the property”.

The period of limitation & when it starts

The statutory period of limitation for initiating action for re-possession of immovable property or any interest therein, stipulated in Section 65 of the Limitation Act 1963, is 12 years in the case of private property, and 30 years in the case of Government/state/public property.

The period of adverse possession starts running from the date since the date the trespasser possesses the property in an adverse manner. If the land belongs to the government, it is treated as precarious possession but not adverse. However, the limitation period ceases to operate when there is litigation ongoing between the claimant and the owner over the same property, or if the owner is of unsound mind or a minor or a person serving in the armed services.

After expiry of the limitation period, no cause of action can evict the possessor and the possessor acquires the righttitle and interest of the original owner by prescription. He thereby becomes entitled to own the property in the way he likes.

Recover of property as per Specific Relief Act

The Section 5 of the Specific Relief Act that provides for the mechanism for the recovery of specific property on the basis of the title one holds, in accordance with the Code of Civil Proceedure,1908 (CPC). A person who owns a better title of the property has the power to possess it over the other.

The Section 6 of the Specific Relief Act makes it possible for a title holder to file a suit for recovery of possession of the property,

Plea for abolishing adverse possession

The courts in several cases wrestled with the concept of adverse possession with qualifiers like actualcontinuousopenhostile and exclusive.

The SC, in two decisions, namely, Hemaji Waghaji v Bhikhabhai Khengarbhai [ AIR 2009 SC 103 ], and State of Haryana v Mukesh Kumar [AIR 2012 SC 559  ] sought the need for a fresh look at the law of adverse possession. The court says there is a strong demand for abolition of adverse possession as the law of adverse possession remains irrationalillogical and extremely harsh for the true owner and no certainty is there in the law of adverse possession.

The law is considered a windfall for dishonest person who had illegally taken possession of the property. It benefits somebody who in a clandestine manner takes possession of the property of the owner in violation of law. The law approves the illegal activities of a fraudulent trespasser who had wrongfully taken possession of the property from the true owner. The law places a premium on dishonesty by legitimizing possession of a trespasser and compelling the owner to lose his right of possession due to his inaction in taking back the possession within the prescribed period.

The court adds that some of the claims based on adverse possession deserve recognition but every claim does not. The law of adverse possession is archaic and needs a serious relook in the larger interest of the people.

SC says the doctrine is an absurdity & black mark

In the case State of Haryana v Mukesh Kumar, there is a hard-hitting criticism of the doctrine of adverse possession by the SC.

The court says, adverse possession allows a trespasser – a person guilty of a tort or a crime in the eye of the law – to gain legal title to land which he has illegally possessed for 12 years. It adds that in logical and moral terms it is baffling to see how an action of illegality for twelve years turns into legal title. This outmoded law asks the judiciary to place its stamp of approval on the doctrine of adverse possession which the ordinary Indian citizen would find reprehensible. The doctrine has troubled a great many legal minds. Therefore, there is a need for change.

The court says the doctrine is an absurdity and a black mark upon the legitimacy of the justice system.

A fair balance needed 

However, a total abolition of adverse possession would set off diverse kinds of practical problems to common man who in a bona fide manner possesses property with no title document.

Many people in rural areas remain in possession since long by virtue of inheritance, purchase or otherwise without any valid title deed. The shoddy manner in which registration of titles is done and the land record is being maintained has made it difficult to people engaging in land deals to know the true owner of land and the history of its ownership.

Nevertheless, there is no justification whatsoever in allowing those who grab the land overnight by force with no bona fides getting title by adverse possession.  The owner of property who may not be physically available to disrupt hostile possession is now penalized. Therefore, there is a need to strike a fair balance between competing considerations in the law of adverse possession.

How to plead adverse possession?

The claimant in adverse possession must plead that his right emanates from  openhostilecontinuous and uninterrupted possession of the land in denial of the title of the rightful owner and against his interest by exercising his absolute right of possession from a date prior to 12/ 30 years, as the case may be.

While pleading for declaration of title and consequential injunction or recovery, the plaintiff has to plead the date on which the defendant took possession. This is to be done in order to show that the relief of recovery of possession is within the period of limitation. If not, the suit would be dismissed. (Nazir Mohamed v J Kamala: AIR 2020 SC 4321).

The possessor gets title by invoking limitation act 

The wrongful possessor of the land gets title by the operation of Section 27 of the Limitation Act. The Section extinguishes the real owner’s right to recover the property from the hostile possessor after the limitation period.

Therefore, the trespasser or possessor gets the title exclusively on account of his possession of the land for such a long time. In such a situation, no one else other than the real owner can stake a claim against a possessor and the possessor in turn becomes the owner or title holder of the property.

SC overruled the following judgements

The SC, in a three-member bench judgement in Ravinder Kaur Grewal v Manjit Kaur [AIR 2019 SC 3827], held that the decision in the following judgements, which conflict with some others, did not lay down law correctly and hence they were overruled.

The judgements overruled are as follows:

  1. Gurdwara Sahib v Gram Panchayat Village Sirthala & Another:(2014) 1 SCC 669
  2. State of Uttarakhand v Mandir Shri Lakshmi Siddh Maharaj
  3. Dharampal (dead) through LRs v Punjab Wakf Board 

SC says one can seek a declaration of title by adverse possession

The SC in Ravinder Kaur Grewal v Manjit Kaur holds that a person in possession cannot be ousted by another person except by due procedure of law and once 12 years’ period of adverse possession is over, even owner’s right to eject him is lost and the possessory owner acquires right, title and interest possessed by the outgoing person/owner as the case may be against whom he has prescribed.

The consequence is that once the right, title or interest is acquired it can be used as a sword by the plaintiff as well as a shield by the defendant within ken of Article 65 of the Limitation Act and any person who has perfected title by way of adverse possession, can file a suit for restoration of possession in case of dispossession.

In case of dispossession by another person by taking law in his hand a possessory suit can be maintained under Article 64, even before the ripening of title by way of adverse possession. By perfection of title on extinguishment of the owner’s title, a person cannot be remediless.

In case he has been dispossessed by the owner after having lost the right by adverse possession, he can be evicted by the plaintiff by taking the plea of adverse possession.

Similarly, any other person who might have dispossessed the plaintiff having perfected title by way of adverse possession can also be evicted until and unless such other person has perfected title against such a plaintiff by adverse possession.

Similarly, under other Articles also in case of infringement of any of his rights, a plaintiff who has perfected the title by adverse possession, can sue and maintain a suit.

SC reiterates the Ravinder Kaur Grewal judgement

The SC, in IDU through LRS. & ORS. v Nizam Din (D) through LRS, reiterated that a suit for declaration of title based on the plea of an adverse possession can be filed by the plaintiff while referring to the Judgment of Ravinder Kaur Grewal v Manjit Kaur and observed that it is a settled position of law that a plaintiff can seek a declaration of title by adverse possession.

Further reading

  1. Annasaheb v B.B.Patil : AIR 1995 SC 895
  2. Karnataka Board of Wakf v Govt. of India: (2004)10 SCC 779
  3. Anjanappa & others v Somalingappa & another: (2006)7 SCC 570
  4. P T Munichikkanna Reddy & Ors v Revamma & Ors: 2007 (6) SCC 59
  5. Hemaji Waghaji Jat v Bhikhabhai Khengarbhai Harijan & Others: (2009) 16 SCC517
  6. Chatti Konati Rao & others v Palle Venkata Subba Rao: (2010) 14 SCC 316
  7. State of Haryana v Mukesh Kumar and Others: (2011) 10 SCC 404.
  8. Nazir Mohamed v J Kamala: AIR 2020 SC 4321)
  9. Ravinder Kaur Grewal v Manjit Kaur [AIR 2019 SC 3827]
  10. IDU through LRS. & ORS. v Nizam Din (D) through LRS