27 July 2020 | Firm news | Article by Abigail Flanagan
The High Court has today handed down judgment in a case which has wide implications for landowners, estates managers and developers across England and Wales.
The case centred on large areas of land in Powys, which is used and managed by Natural Resources Wales for forestry purposes, on behalf of the National Assembly for Wales - which owns the freehold titles. Over the years, mudstone quarried from the land has been used to create roads and tracks, as part of the forestry infrastructure work.
The Lord of the Manor, known as the ‘Wynnstay Estate,’ took the case to court, arguing that they still owned the common mudstone on the land. While mudstone is one of the lowest value types of stone in existence, had the arguments put forward by the Claimants been successful, it would have had significant consequences for Natural Resources Wales, and many other landowners who have put foundations into the mudstone layer, built roads into it, or erected fences – almost any activity which would ordinarily be consistent with the freehold ownership of land.
Trustees of the Wynnstay Estate argued that when it had disposed of title to land - either through conveyances, by statutory enclosure or by third party acts of adverse possession - the only title that passed was to a thin layer of soil immediately above the mudstone, not the mudstone itself. As such, the Claimants sought a declaration and damages for trespass and breach of their property rights.
Acting in defence of Natural Resources Wales, Hugh James and its barristers, Mark Wonnacott QC and Harriet Holmes, argued that mudstone had not been reserved by the Claimants and that, even if mudstone was included in the reservations, the Defendant’s use of it, and that of their predecessors over many years’, amounted to adverse possession of the mudstone.
During the trial, the court heard evidence including from documents dating back to the 16th Century, some of these titles having been dealt with under a licence from Queen Elizabeth I to Robert Earl of Leicester.
In her judgment, Mrs Justice Falk ruled that the Claimants’ title does not extend to ownership of mudstone and that Natural Resources Wales acted as an occupying owner might normally be expected to do.
The judge also concluded that title to minerals can be lost by adverse possession and that even if mudstone was caught by the mineral reservation, the Claimants had been dispossessed of it.
Speaking of today’s decision, Head of Property Litigation at Hugh James, Rob Phillips, said:
This case shows just how important it is for landowners and manorial rights holders to tread very carefully when pursuing claims that seek to revive historic rights. The judgment provides a helpful analysis of the concepts of ancient manors and enclosure, adverse possession and the meaning and effect of “mineral rights” beneath the surface. It’s worth all landowners, estates managers and developers taking careful note of this historic case.”