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Powell v McFarlane (1977) 38 P & CR 452

Powell, aged 14, lived on his grand-father’s farm. McFarlane owned land adjacent to the farm. McFarlane moved overseas and Powell started making use of the land by grazing a cow and a goat there. He also used the land for shooting and undertook repairs on the fence. These activities took place sporadically for a period in excess of 12 years.


Powell’s actions were not sufficient to amount to factual possession therefore his claim failed. Slade J set out the requirements to establish title based on adverse possession.

Slade J:

"Possession of land, however, is a concept which has long been familiar and of importance to English lawyers, because (inter alia) it entitles the person in possession, whether rightfully or wrongfully, to maintain an action of trespass against any other person who enters the land without his consent, unless such other person has himself a better right to possession. In the absence of authority, therefore, I would for my own part have regarded the word 'possession' in the 1939 Act as bearing the traditional sense of that degree of occupation or physical control, coupled with the requisite intention commonly referred to as animus possidendi, that would entitle a person to maintain an action of trespass in relation to the relevant land; likewise I would have regarded the word 'dispossession' in the Act as denoting simply the taking of possession in such sense from another without the other's license or consent; likewise I would have regarded a person who has 'dispossessed' another in the sense just stated as being in 'adverse possession' for the purposes of the Act…

(1)  In the absence of evidence to the contrary, the owner of land with the paper title is deemed to be in possession of the land as being the person with the prima facie right to possession. The law will thus, without reluctance, ascribe possession either to the paper owner or to persons who can establish a title as claiming through the paper owner.

(2)  If the law is to attribute possession of land to a person who can establish no paper title to possession, he must be shown to have both factual possession and the requisite intention to possess ("animus possidendi").

(3)  Factual possession signifies an appropriate degree of physical control. It must be a single and [exclusive] possession, though there can be a single possession exercised by or on behalf of several persons jointly. Thus an owner of land and a person intruding on that land without his consent cannot both be in possession of the land at the same time. The question what acts constitute a sufficient degree of exclusive physical control must depend on the circumstances, in particular the nature of the land and the manner in which land of that nature is commonly used or enjoyed. …. Everything must depend on the particular circumstances, but broadly, I think what must be shown as constituting factual possession is that the alleged possessor has been dealing with the land in question as an occupying owner might have been expected to deal with it and that no-one else has done so."

Back to lecture outline on adverse possession in land law