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Sunday 21 January 2018

Farmer's squatters' rights claim on €3m land rejected by High Court

Tim Healy

The High Court has cleared the way for the auction of 20 acres of land - once worth €3m and now selling for around half a million - after rejecting an application for an injunction by a farmer who claimed ownership by virtue of squatters' rights.

Peter O'Reilly says because no legal action was taken against him since 1998 to remove his grazing cattle from the land on the edge of Cavan town, he now owns it under the law of adverse possession or squatter's rights, which kick in after 12 years of uninterrupted occupation.

It is due to be sold by Allsop at auction this Thursday (November 24) with a recommended price tag of between €545,000 and €560,000. 

The land, at Keadue, Cavan, had been earmarked in 2005 for a major development but was later sold with planning permission to local developer Cathal Brady for €3m. Ulster Bank had a charge over the land which it later sold on to the Promontoria Aran Ltd fund.

Promontoria appointed receivers Luke Charleton and Marcus Purcell to put the land up for sale to help discharge Mr Brady's debt.

Mr O'Reilly, of Crubany, Cavan, had paid annual rent to the previous owner of the land, Cavan Co Council, between 1981 and 1998 and used it for grazing his cattle.

Subsequent to 1998, he said no legal proceedings were ever taken against him to remove him from the land. While he has no buildings on the land, he claims he provided a cattle pen/crusher and water tank and also installed a gate and fencing.

He said he has been in continuous occupation for 37 years and even after his payment of rent to the council ended in 1998, he still qualified for adverse possession because he continued to be in occupation for more than the 12 years required by law.

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He claimed the proposed sale was a slander to his title to the property which was acquired as a result of adverse possession.

Dominic Hussey SC, for Mr O'Reilly, said once no one took legal steps to challenge his occupation, he enjoyed uninterrupted possession since 1998. Promontoria and the receivers had "no business putting it up for sale" once he claimed ownership, he said. 

Mr O'Reilly has submitted an application registering ownership with the Land Registry and that is currently being processed, counsel said.

Promontoria and the receivers, who opposed his application for an injunction which would have stopped the auction, disputed that he had enjoyed 12 years uninterrupted possession.

In 2005, when the county council entered into an agreement with a third party to build a major development of the land, Mr O'Reilly never stopped architects or engineers from going on to the land when they were surveying it for the development, Bernard Dunleavy SC, for Promontoria and the receivers said.

A site notice was put up outlining the planning application and ownership and Mr O'Reilly never objected even though six other people did, counsel said. An agreement was also made with a neighbouring landowner for the purpose of access during construction of the project.

These amounted to significant acts of dispossession, Mr Dunleavy said.

In 2009, Mr O'Reilly was notified by solicitors for Mr Brady notified him he was trespassing which represented another break in the alleged continuous possession which is disputed anyway, counsel said. Mr Brady has also supported by sale by the receivers, he said.

His clients wanted the auction to go ahead and prospective purchasers have been fully informed of Mr O'Reilly's claim and of his side's position in relation to that claim.

Mr Justice Paul Gilligan declined to grant the injunction saying if Mr O'Reilly wins his main action, he would be entitled to ownership and therefore damages would be an adequate remedy for him.   

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