Victory for villagers over 'unscrupulous' landlords

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The Independent Online

Thousands of villagers across the country will no longer have to pay unscrupulous landowners for the right to use their own driveways after the House of Lords ruled in favour of 43 Hampshire residents.

Thousands of villagers across the country will no longer have to pay unscrupulous landowners for the right to use their own driveways after the House of Lords ruled in favour of 43 Hampshire residents.

The unanimous decision by five law lords will stop landowners from abusing rights that they hold over common land.

In yesterday's ruling villagers at Newtown Common, Hampshire, just south of Newbury, successfully argued that they should not have to pay Bakewell Management thousands of pounds for access to their properties.

The right to charge for passing over common land derives from the ancient title of the Lord of the Manor, a wealthy landowner who lived in the local manor house. After a 1993 ruling upholding these manorial rights the titles have been changing hands at an alarming rate. Yesterday the House of Lords overturned a previous ruling that held the villagers had not acquired a right to cross the common, despite doing so unhindered for more than 20 years.

The Court of Appeal judges ruled that the householders had been acting unlawfully for decades in driving on tracks over the common without the consent of the lord of the manor.

Householders in a similar plight - living in what they describe as "Villages of the Scammed" - have accused "unscrupulous" land-owners of holding villages to ransom.

The legal obstacle facing the Newtown residents was that in 1927, when granting public access to the common, the sixth Earl of Carnarvon, who was Lord of the Manor of Newtown at the time, invoked a law which makes it an offence for anyone to drive on common land without authority.

As a result, said the Court of Appeal, the residents and their visitors had regularly committed offences against that law - Section 193(4) of the 1925 Law of Property Act.

According to a 1993 decision in another commons case, rights over land could not be acquired by conduct prohibited by public statute.

Lord Scott, sitting with Lords Bingham, Hope and Walker and Baroness Hale, said that before the 1993 decision, 20 years of uninterrupted use would have entitled a householder to a right of way. Ruling that that should still be the case, he said that as a matter of public policy the acquisition of property rights should not be prevented by conduct which was only "criminal" in that there was no "lawful authority" for it.

The use made of the land by the householders in driving their cars across it had more in common with a civil law "tort" than a criminal act, he said.

Bakewell Management was ordered to pay the legal costs incurred by the residents in the Lords and the Court of Appeal.