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Feudal Past Raises its Head in Bitter Neighbours Dispute

In a case which vividly revealed how events in the distant feudal past can still be relevant to issues arising today, the Court of Appeal has delved back to the age of chivalry in resolving a bitter neighbours’ dispute.

Bucolic Scene 2A retired businessman who lived in a Jacobean manor house in rural Lancashire had paid £1 to purchase the title of local ‘Lord of the Manor’ and had successfully applied to the Land Registry to be registered as joint proprietor, with his wife, of a 362-acre beauty spot on the basis that it was ‘waste’ of the manor.

The land had for centuries been used as common grazing and pasture and a number of residents of the neighbouring village objected to the businessman exercising his rights as owner. They successfully argued before a Land Registry adjudicator that the Lordship of the Manor had long ago lapsed. The businessman did not challenge that decision.

However, whilst accepting that the couple had been registered as proprietors in error, the adjudicator declined to amend the register accordingly. He found that such a move would serve ‘no useful purpose’ and that it was better that someone should be recognised as owner of the land, rather than it being ‘left in limbo’.

The villagers’ challenge to that decision was dismissed following a 10-day High Court hearing. However, they argued on appeal that, the Lordship of the Manor having been declared defunct, it necessarily followed that the couple had no right to the land and that a glaring inaccuracy in the register should be put right.

In ruling on the case, the Court noted that it was rare for a case chronology to stretch back to the mid-13th Century.  In an attempt to discern where ownership of the land lay, lawyers had delved back to 1254, when Henry III granted lands in Lancashire to the Knights Hospitaller of St John of Jerusalem, the dissolution of that Order in 1540 and its restoration by Queen Mary. However, historical researches had failed to yield a conclusive answer to the ownership issue and all that could be said was that the land’s rightful owner was ‘probably the Crown’.

In dismissing the villagers’ appeal, the Court noted that it had never been disputed that local residents enjoyed ‘rights of common’ over the land.  Since taking physical possession of the beauty spot, the couple had invested much time, effort and money on improving its management. They had ‘discouraged harmful practices’ – including waste tipping – on the land and had granted grazing and sporting rights over it.

Observing that the truth of the case was ‘ more prosaic than Lords, Manors, Knights of Jerusalem and stunning scenery’, the Court noted that, in the end, the matter came down to ‘a rather old-fashioned un-neighbourly dispute with some unusual feudal bits and some land registration bits tacked on’. In the circumstances there was nothing unjust about the couple being registered as proprietors of the disputed land.