It’s a chilling thought that land you own, or think you own, can legally be claimed by someone else.
Under Alberta’s law of adverse possession, that’s exactly what can happen and it’s exactly why this archaic law should be stricken from the books.
Adverse possession is better known as squatter’s rights. It allows a person to claim ownership of land if he or she has been in open possession of it 10 years or more without having a valid agreement with the landowner.
Though relatively rare, cases with successful claims using adverse possession continue to occur and people with legal title end up losing their property.
It happened to a Cardston area rancher in 2014. He lost 10 acres to a neighbour under the adverse possession law. It happened to a Calgary resident earlier this year. He lost 750 square feet of his residential lot to a neighbour.
The law has its roots in centuries-old British common law, devised in part because settlement in that country preceded survey. In Alberta, survey preceded settlement and became a vital part of the land titles system. Yet Alberta and Nova Scotia are the only two provinces that retain adverse possession on the legal books, and Nova Scotia is taking steps to abolish it.
Elected officials in Alberta have been trying to do the same.
Three times in the last six years, legislation to abolish squatter’s rights has been presented. Three times, those attempts have failed.
In 2012, a proposed Bill 204 was given two readings before it died when an election was called.
In a second attempt in 2017, a Wildrose initiated Bill 204 contained various contentious elements in addition to abolition of adverse possession, and was defeated.
On the third try, just last month, a UCP-initiated private member’s bill — in a weird coincidence also Bill 204 — was defeated by the NDP government when members cited vague fears about unintended consequences.
Thus this most recent defeat has the flavour of political high-handedness rather than a straightforward attempt to better protect Albertans’ property rights.
Keeping adverse possession on the books means that Alberta’s land titles system can be subverted, and that is indeed chilling for anyone who owns property and has title.
Alberta’s Property Rights Advocate recommended in 2014 that it be stricken from the books for that precise reason. The province’s Standing Committee on Resource Stewardship, a bipartisan body, made the same recommendation in 2017.
And yet it remains.
The NDP government has asked the Alberta Law Reform Institute to review the law, a process likely to take at least a year.
Why the stall tactics? All Alberta political parties, at some point in the past six years, have agreed that squatters rights should be stricken.
Is further review going to reveal some saving grace? Or will more property owners lose ground while thinking they are being good neighbours to people who will later claim ownership?
Squatters rights do not have a place in Alberta law. The government should act.
Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen, Brian MacLeod and Michael Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.