While the squatters may protect their livelihood under the adverse possession law, the original landowners are stripped of their rights. This could leave the public with the impression that, depending on the passage of time, the law validates wrongful possession by aggressive squatters.
With this concern in mind, the Adverse Possession Sub-committee of the Law Reform Commission is considering reforms to the law. The sub-committee suggests following the current British laws of adverse possession where the squatter has to notify the land owner of their intention to apply for adverse possession after 10 years of occupation.
Edward Chan King-sang, the chairman of the sub-committee, welcomes the reform from the perspective of respecting private property. “If you have left your wallet in the car and I have stolen it, it is still considered theft,” says Chan, “I can’t rationalise the theft and say you lost your wallet because you left your wallet in the car and didn’t take good care of it.”
His view is echoed by Professor Michael Wilkinson, a member of the Sub-committee who is also a law professor of the University of Hong Kong. “It is a detriment to squatters. But on the other hand, squatting can be argued to be theft,” says Wilkinson. “Imagine I steal your diamond ring, and the law said after 12 years it’s mine! You wouldn’t like that.”
But legislator and barrister Ronny Tong Ka-wah disagrees. “This is a matter of social justice,” says Tong. “It [the reform] is totally unfair and it is equivalent to eliminating the law of adverse possession altogether.” He adds that the majority of the squatters are poorer people.
Opinions differ on whether adverse possession is a way to ensure squatters have a chance to defend their homes and livelihoods and prevent the hoarding of land, or as an act of theft. But what can be agreed upon is that with Hong Kong’s numerous development and renewal plans, an increase in adverse possession disputes is likely. It is a matter of time, as Wilkinson says, before the “major debate of fundamental principles of adverse possession” falls upon our community.
Edited by Vivian Ng