Registry chooses to sit on the fence: A homeowner tried to find out who owned the land next to his, but met only unhelpfulness. Sue Fieldman reports

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IVOR SMITH spent pounds 800 replacing a fence at the end of his garden. He wants to know who owns the land on the other side - and is responsible for the fence - to claim the cost back.

He asked the Land Registry - the one institution that should be able to help him. Seven months later he is still waiting for a reply.

In August 1988, Dr Smith, who lives in west London, sold off some land at the end of his garden to a company.

There was a covenant in the title deeds that the purchaser was to erect a fence between the two properties. This was done, but the fence subsequently blew down.

Dr Smith spent months trying to get the purchaser to put up a new fence, but to no avail.

Finally Dr Smith put the fence up himself. Before he tried to reclaim the money, he decided to double-check the identity of the owner of the land with the Land Registry.

The registry, which keeps records of the 14 million registered properties in England and Wales, has been open to the public for two years.

For a fee of pounds 16, it will provide full details of a property, including the title number, registered owner and any mortgages or covenants that affect the land.

Dr Smith obtained a copy of the title. The entries still showed that the company he had sold the land to was the owner.

However a company search revealed that the company had been dissolved in November 1990.

Dr Smith was confused. If the company had been dissolved, who now owned the land?

He wrote to the Land Registry last April, saying: 'I assume that you will want to trace the proper owner. I would like to exercise my right to know the name of the owner if you determine it.'

Dr Smith heard nothing. At the beginning of October, he telephoned the Land Registry.

Dr Smith says: 'I spoke to a man and drew his attention to the fact that I had written six months ago, that I had no reply, and that as the information had been paid for I had a right to receive the correct data.

'He expressed concern and said the matter would be dealt with at once. And it was, but all he managed to do was send me a further copy of the original, incorrect, information.'

Dr Smith was beginning to despair. On 16 October he wrote to the Chief Officer at the Land Registry and even provided the name and details of the person who he thought might now own the land.

He asked that some effort be made to settle his enquiry, and requested an acknowledgement, proving that it was being dealt with.

He has received no communication whatsoever and is seeking some recourse to force the Land Registry to answer.

A spokesman responded to our enquiries and apologised for not dealing with the matter. He promised that a letter would be sent immediately to Dr Smith.

But would the Land Registry finally investigate who owned the property?

In short, no. The spokesman went on: 'As far as we are concerned, the company is still the owner - that is the latest information we have. It is incumbent on any new owner to tell us.'

If you are dissatisfied with the Land Registry you should first complain to its customer service department. If it does not deal with your complaint adequately you can contact the Chief Land Registrar or, ultimately, the Parliamentary Ombudsman.

John Samson, property partner of solicitors Nabarro Nathanson said: 'If a company has been dissolved, the property would normally pass to the Crown.

'Where the Land Registry has made a mistake you can ask them to correct it.

'But normally they will only do it on behalf of the owner of the property or a mortgagee, not an adjoining owner.'

(Photograph omitted)