Purchasers from squatters take subject to equitable interests of which they have notice

Re Nisbet and Potts’ Contract ([1906] 1 Ch. 386, CA (Eng)) concerned N’s contract to sell land to P. N’s title was possessory. The formal title had been defeated and there had been several conveyances of the possessory title before its conveyance to N. The contract beween N and P required P to accept this title. At the time of his purchase, N had not investigated title for the full forty years then demanded by conveyancing practice. Had he done so, investigating the paper title that had been defeated, he would have discovered that the paper title was subject to a restrictive covenant controlling what could be built on the land. P was a builder and he acquired the land with a view to building shops and other buildings on it. Before the contract was completed, the neighbour with the benefit of the restrictive covenant informed him of it and that proceedings would be brought in the event of breach. P refused to complete on the basis of this undisclosed encumbrance. The question was whether the covenant was binding on N; if so, P was justified in refusing to complete.

The English Court of Appeal held that a restrictive covenant is an equitable proprietary interest binding on all but a good faith purchaser for value without notice of it (Collins M.R. at 403; Romer LJ at 405 and 406). It was not defeated merely because the paper title had been extinguished. Time would only begin to run against the covenantee when there had been a breach so that the covenantee had a right to bring proceedings (Collins M.R. at 401 and 402).

The squatter himself is always subject to the covenant whether or not he had notice of it (Cozens Hardy L.J. at 410). A purchaser of the squatter’s title is subject to the restrictive covenant unless he is a good faith purchaser for value without notice (Cozens Hardy L.J. at 410). N was not such a purchaser. He had not investigated the title for the full forty year period  and so had constructive notice of any interests that he would have discovered had he done so. N’s title was subject to the restrictive covenant and P was entitled to resile from the contract.

Michael Lower

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