Moored boats are a familiar sight on our rivers and waterways – some boats are for work, others for pleasure and a few are used as homes. If someone has been mooring a boat over a long period without permission, can they make a claim for adverse possession? Is simply mooring a boat sufficient evidence for a claim to succeed?


What is adverse possession?

Adverse possession of land is possession of land in circumstances which are inconsistent with the title of the true owner, which is sometimes referred to as “squatter’s rights”. The person in adverse possession must prove factual possession accompanied by an intention to possess.

After a certain period, the squatter can claim title to the land from the true owner. The period varies according to whether the land is registered (generally 10 years) or unregistered (generally 12 years).


What have the courts decided?

In Port of London Authority v Ashmore [2010] EWCA Civ 30 the Court of Appeal, Mr Ashmore attempted a similar argument. He had moored a sailing barge for 25 years at Battersea. It was accepted by the Port Authority in principle that:

  1. Title to the foreshore and river bed could be acquired by reason of mooring; and
  2. That the fact that the River Thames where the vessel was moored was subject to the public right of navigation would not, of itself, prevent title to the bed or foreshore being acquired by adverse possession.

The judge found that Mr Ashmore had established that he did have sufficient intention to possess the relevant part of the river bed throughout the material time.

In Port of London Authority v Mendoza [2017], UKUT 0146 the Port of London sought to register its title to a section of the river bed and foreshore. Mr Mendoza lived in a houseboat on the same section and objected to the application on the basis that he had acquired title to an area of the river bed by adverse possession.

The tribunal confirmed that there is no authority to the effect that simply mooring a boat is, without more, both factual possession and sufficient evidence of intention to possess such that a finding of adverse possession can be made. There has to be evidence of intention to possess.

The case illustrates that it is very difficult to claim adverse possession of a river bed simply by mooring a boat on it. Simply mooring does not necessarily demonstrate to the world an intention to exclude all others from that land.


What does this mean for me?

In principle, mooring a boat on a tidal river may entitle the boat owner to claim adverse possession of that part of the river bed or the foreshore of the river on which the boat rests at low tide. This will be so even if the river is subject to public rights of navigation because the squatter will take subject to those rights.

That means that if you own or have an interest in a river bed or bank, and there has been someone mooring a boat over a long period without a licence or other permission, you are vulnerable to an adverse possession claim.

Taking action to avoid the use becoming adverse, such as by putting in place a licence to use the area or, more definitely, requiring them to cease using the river bed, should be actively considered.