CCJ Upholds Squatter’s Rights in Dominican Land Dispute
In a judgment issued yesterday, November 28 the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) quashed the decision of the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court to give way to the rights of a person who had occupied a piece of land for more than 12 years.
This Appellate Jurisdiction matter involved a dispute, between David George and Albert Guye, over a strip of land in Dominica. The appellant, Mr George, was the occupier of the strip of land for over 12 years. However, that strip formed part of a larger parcel of land of which the respondent, Mr Guye, became the registered owner in 1995.
Although Mr Guye was issued a certificate of title under the Title by Registration Act (TRA) in 1995, it was not until 2007 that he filed a claim to regain possession of the disputed strip of land.
Mr George argued that his long and continuous possession of the strip had extinguished Mr Guye’s title.
Both the High Court and the Court of Appeal disagreed with Mr George and held that under the TRA, Mr Guye’s registered title could not be challenged unless Mr George had complied with the procedural steps outlined in section 33 of the TRA. The lower courts held that Mr George, having not triggered Section 33, could not now succeed against the claim of Mr Guye.
The CCJ, by a majority judgment delivered by the Court President, Honourable Mr Justice Adrian Saunders, (Justices Wit and Rajnauth-Lee concurring) disagreed with the lower courts and allowed Mr George’s appeal. The majority noted that indefeasibility of a Certificate of Title in Dominica was not absolute and that the TRA expressly provided for two exceptions to such indefeasibility; the one relevant to this appeal being where the title of the registered proprietor had been superseded by a title acquired under the RPLA. The majority stated that the RPLA conferred certain “squatter’s rights” on someone who has been in occupation of land for over 12 years. The majority took the view that the law barred even a registered landowner who allowed someone to squat on his land for a continuous period in excess of 12 years, from bringing an action in court to recover the land from the squatter. The majority was also of the view that this interpretation of the law was in line with cases coming out of Dominica over many years. Accordingly, the majority held that Mr George was entitled to successfully defend the claim for possession brought by Mr Guye.
Justices Anderson and Burgess, however, in minority opinions, noted that the critical issue was to determine the circumstances in which the title of the registered owner can be superseded. Justice Anderson expressed that the introduction of the TRA was to provide stability and security of title and overrode the earlier “squatter’s rights” legislation where there is a conflict between the two. It was for this reason that the certificate of title could not be challenged and anyone seeking to use their long-standing possession as a defence had to first comply with the procedure laid down in section 33. Justice Burgess based on a strict interpretation of the RPLA and the TRA reached a similar conclusion.
The CCJ, by a majority, allowed Mr George’s appeal. The full judgment of the Court and a judgment summary are available on the Court’s website at www.ccj.org.