The General Boundaries Rule: Land Registry plans

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This week’s Ask the Expert in the Times Property Bricks & Mortar section is about boundary disputes. The reader says that there is a defective pipe on some neighbouring land which has leaked into the foundations of the reader’s house. The land registry plans show that the land belongs to a neighbouring farmer, but the farmer says the plans are wrong. Is registration conclusive about title to land or is there any doubt?  

The Land Register and plans

Attached to the entry for every registered property in England and Wales will be a plan, frequently referred to as a file plan. The file plan generally shows the land drawn on Ordnance Survey 1/1250 scale plans with the boundaries outlined in red. Technically, the effect of registration is that the Land Registry guarantees or insures the registered person against claims by third parties by virtue of the complementary remedy of indemnity (see Sch.8 to the Land Registration Act 2002 and previously s.83 of the LRA 1925 as amended) – but effectively the register is conclusive about ownership rights.

Alteration

However, there are exceptions. In particular, it is always open to someone to apply to alter or rectify the register under Sch.4 to the Land Registration Act 2002, provided they meet the strict criteria for alteration.

The criteria for alteration under Sch.4 include:

(a)  the correction of a mistake;

(b)  bringing the register up to date, or;

(c)  to give effect to any estate, legal right or interest that is not affected by registration (because the land has been registered with good leasehold, possessory or qualified title).

Rectification is defined by paragraph 1 of Sch.4 as being an alteration which involves the correction of a mistake, and prejudicially affects the title of a registered proprietor. Not every alteration will constitute a rectification. The fact that the rectification of the register may cause a person prejudice, e.g. because he has purchased land from someone who lacked good title or that is subject to an interest that he was unaware of, means a registered proprietor is generally entitled to an indemnity where he suffers loss as a result of the “rectification”.

The General Boundaries Rule

Even where land is shown on the file plan, this is subject to the General Boundaries Rule in s.60 of the 2002 Act. Section 60 provides as follows:

“(1) the boundary of a registered estate as shown for the purposes of the register is a general boundary, unless shown as determined under this section. (2) a general boundary does not determine the exact line of the boundary”.

This is not a new concept. Prior to the 2002 Act, Rule 278 of the Land Registration Act 1925 provided that:

“(1) Except in cases in which it is noted in the Property Register that the boundaries have been fixed, the filed plan or General Map shall be deemed to indicate the general boundaries only.

(2) In such cases the exact line of the boundary will be left undetermined – as, for instance, whether it includes a hedge or wall and ditch, or runs along the centre of a wall or fence, or its inner or outer face, or how far it runs within or beyond it; or whether or not the land registered includes the whole or any portion of an adjoining road or stream.”

Therefore, unless the register records that a determined boundary has been registered under section 60(3) of the Land Registration Act 2002 (which is relatively rare), the boundaries to registered titles shown at the Land Registry are no more than a general indication of the boundary, rather that the precise boundary line. Hence the warning that often appears on title plans. 

This rule arises because the small scale of the file plans cannot be scaled up with any degree of accuracy – so that a millimetre’s difference either way may make a four-foot difference on the ground. Indeed, inaccuracies in file plans can be quite extensive. For example, in Drake v Fripp [2011] EWCA Civ. 1279 (Ch); [2012] 1 P. & C.R. 4, the Court of Appeal found that a strip of land amounting to over 1.5 acres fell within the General Boundaries Rule. In Well Barn Farming Ltd v Backhouse [2005] EWHC 3397 (Ch); [2005] 3 EGLR 109, the length of the boundary in dispute between two registered proprietors was about three quarters of a mile long and the difference between their claims as to the correct boundary 12 to 20 feet, so the area of land with doubtful ownership despite registration of title was about five acres overall. The Land Registry therefore has procedures for applying for a clearer boundary to be determined by reference to larger scale plans. The decision in Drake v Fripp was followed in Prashar & Patel v Tunbridge Wells BC [2012] EWHC 1734 (Ch). In that case, the area in dispute ran almost the entire length of the parties’ respective titles and was a significant area but it was properly treated simply as a general boundary line dispute which did not prejudicially affect the respondent’s title.

Removing land which is within the scope of the general boundaries rule from the title plan does not mean that any land is being removed from the registered title; rather it is merely producing “another general boundary in a more accurate position than the current general boundary” (Derbyshire County Council v Fallon [2007] EWHC 1326 (Ch). The courts characterise a dispute over this type of alteration as a “boundary dispute” rather than a “property dispute”.

The short answer

It therefore follows that ownership of property at the Land Registry is generally conclusive. But you cannot rely on the lines drawn on the file plans as being an accurate representation of the boundaries of the land involved.