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The Trusted Advisors Legal Digest: Adverse Possession: Legal Principles, Case Law, And Contemporary Applications

The Trusted Advisors Legal Digest: Adverse Possession: Legal Principles, Case Law, And Contemporary Applications

Adverse possession is a legal concept rooted in centuries-old principles that govern land ownership and property rights. It arises when a person openly, notoriously, and continuously possesses another person’s property without the owner’s permission for a specified period. Over time, adverse possession can lead to the possessor acquiring legal title to the property, thereby extinguishing the original owner’s rights. This article explores the legal principles, landmark case law, and contemporary applications of adverse possession .

Legal Framework

Adverse possession in Nigeria is primarily governed by statutes and judicial precedents. The key legislative framework includes:

I. Limitation Act of 1966: This Act sets the limitation periods for bringing actions to recover land. Under this Act, an action to recover land must be brought within twelve years from the date the right of action accrued to the claimant.

II. Land Use Act of 1978: This Act vests all land in the state governor, who holds it in trust for the people. While this Act transformed land ownership structures, it did not abolish the principle of adverse possession. Instead, it implicitly acknowledges it by setting time limits within which land recovery actions must be initiated.

Legal Principles:

Adverse possession is based on several key legal principles:

i. Hostile Possession: The possession must be hostile, meaning the possessor’s use of the property is without the owner’s permission. However, hostility does not necessarily imply ill will; it simply means that the possession is inconsistent with the owner’s rights.

ii. Open and Notorious: The possession must be open and notorious, meaning it is visible and obvious to anyone who cares to observe. This requirement prevents secret or stealthy acquisitions of property.

iii. Continuous and Uninterrupted: The possession must be continuous and uninterrupted for the statutory period, which varies depending on jurisdiction. During this time, the possessor must treat the property as if they were the true owner, such as paying property taxes and maintaining the land.

iv. Exclusive Possession: The possession must be exclusive, meaning the possessor has exclusive control and use of the property to the exclusion of others, including the true owner.

v. Statutory Period: The statutory period, or the length of time required for adverse possession to ripen into legal ownership, varies by jurisdiction but typically ranges from 5 to 20 years.

CASE LAW

I. Owoade v. Oshoboja (1988) 2 NWLR (Pt. 77) 391: The case revolved on the issue of adverse possession and property rights. Owoade claimed ownership of a piece of land, arguing that he had acquired it through adverse possession. Oshoboja, the defendant, disputed this claim and provided title documents to assert his legal ownership of the property. The court examined whether Owoade had fulfilled the legal requirements for adverse possession, which include demonstrating uninterrupted, open, and exclusive possession of the property for a statutory period, typically twelve years under Nigerian law. The court found that Owoade had not provided sufficient evidence of continuous and exclusive possession of the land for the required duration. As a result, the court ruled in favor of Oshoboja, validating his ownership based on the presented title documents.

II. Idu v. Okumagba (1991) 2 NWLR (Pt. 174) 509: The central issue revolved around adverse possession and property ownership. Idu claimed ownership of a piece of land, alleging that he had acquired it through adverse possession. Okumagba contested this claim, presenting title documents to support his ownership. The trial court evaluated whether Idu had met the legal requirements for adverse possession, which necessitate continuous, open, and hostile possession of the property for a specified period. The court found that Idu had not satisfied these criteria, as his possession was neither continuous nor hostile enough to override Okumagba’s documented title.

Consequently, the court ruled in favor of Okumagba, affirming his ownership based on valid title documents. Idu’s appeal was also dismissed, with the appellate court reinforcing the trial court’s findings on the insufficiency of evidence for adverse possession.

III. Olagunju v. Adesoye (2009) 9 NWLR: The plaintiff (Olagunju) sought to recover possession of a parcel of land from the defendant (Adesoye). The defendant claimed ownership of the land through adverse possession, asserting that he had occupied and used the land without interruption for the statutory period required by law. The primary legal issue in this case was whether Adesoye had met all the criteria for adverse possession, thereby extinguishing Olagunju’s title to the land. The Supreme Court of Nigeria held that Adesoye successfully demonstrated all the elements of adverse possession .

ADVERSE POSSESSION ON PUBLIC LAND
Public land in Nigeria is held in trust for the public by the government . Suffice to say- adverse possession does not apply to public land. The purpose of this is to make sure that public lands are preserved for their intended purposes and to prevent private individuals from claiming ownership through adverse possession . To summarize Section 1 of the Land use act 2004 and its affect adverse possession:

1. Vesting of Land in the Governor: Ultimate ownership of all land rests with the state government, not with private individuals or entities.

2. Trust and Administration: Public Land is Deemed Held in Trust for the People, making it legally and ethically inappropriate for individuals to claim such land through adverse possession

CONTEMPORARY ISSUES
Nigerian adverse possession has a number of current difficulties, mostly as a result of socioeconomic and legal developments like:

• Urbanisation and Land Value: As a result of the rapid growth in land value brought about by urbanisation, there are now more disputes and harsher enforcement measures taken by rightful owners to regain their land.

• Land Registration and Documentation: Adverse possessors now find it more difficult to claim land covertly thanks to improved land registration and documentation processes.

• Judicial Scrutiny: In order to guarantee that only legitimate claims satisfying all legal requirements are maintained, Nigerian courts have taken a more stringent stance while examining adverse possession claims.

CONCLUSION
Despite its significant importance to the Nigerian legal system as well as the historical principles that govern land ownership and property rights within Nigeria, the legality surrounding adverse possession is something that continues being discussed today. Key statutes govern this principle including the Limitation Act (1966) and the Land Use Act (1978) while cases also help shape it; during adverse possession, it allows someone who possesses land to own it after they have been using continuous hostile exclusive possession over such property over a certain period which must be prescribed by law. It’s been around for a long time, but urbanization, improved land registration procedures, and serious judicial examination make present day concepts of adverse possession challenging.

 

Article written by Maureen Izibevie Esegi. Maureen is an associate in the real estate and property practice group at the Trusted Advisors