Adverse possession (sometimes referred to as “squatter’s rights”) is a legal principle in property law that allows someone who has been occupying a piece of private property, for which they are not the registered owner, to go to court to assert a claim of ownership to that property. Understandably, this puts stress on private landowners who may be absent from their property for long periods of time.
In Alberta, the province’s adverse possession laws have been debated for over 10 years. In late 2022, the government passed new amendments to the province’s property laws to effectively abolish this legal principle in the province. This blog will provide an overview of the amendments and the impacts of this new legislation.
Overview of adverse possession rules in Alberta prior to the new amendments
Prior to December 15, 2022, the doctrine of adverse possession applied to private lands in Alberta. This doctrine allowed a person to claim ownership of privately held land from the registered owner if they had occupied the land for at least 10 years. The main justification for this rule was to favour active users of private land over absentee owners.
Following suit of other provinces, adverse possession became codified in Alberta through its application in the common law. Adverse possession claims could only be made against private landowners and did not apply to public land, municipal land, or irrigation districts.
Alberta passes new law to eliminate adverse possession in the province
On December 15, 2022, Alberta’s Property Rights Statutes Amendment Act (the “Act”) came into force. The Act amends three pieces of provincial legislation that deal with property rights in Alberta:
- the Law of Property Act;
- the Land Titles Act; and
- the Limitations Act.
The Law of Property Act
The Act repeals section 69 of the Law of Property Act, which had allowed a person to retain property when they had made improvements to the land. Instead, the amended section allows the court to order that:
- the person who made the improvements remove or abandon them,
- an easement be granted to the person who made the improvements,
- the person who made the improvements acquire the disputed lands from the landowner, or
- the landowner compensate the person for the value of the improvements on their land.
This law was further amended to explicitly say that no implied licence, right, or title to land can be acquired by adverse possession.
The Land Titles Act
Prior to the amendments, section 74 of the Land Titles Act allowed the court to grant ownership of private lands to an adverse possessor. Once the judgement was registered in the Land Titles Office, the registrar would issue a new certificate of title in the adverse possessor’s name, giving them full ownership rights.
The Act repealed this provision and replaced it with a new provision allowing anyone who recovers a judgement under the Law of Property Act, as described above, to file a certified copy of the judgement in the Land Titles Office.
The Limitations Act
Before the new Act came into force, the Limitations Act provided that registered landowners bringing a claim to recover possession of real property from an adverse possessor would have their claim extinguished if they didn’t start their claim within the 10-year limitation period.
The Act introduces a new provision, section 3.2, which provides that there is no limitation period concerning a claim for the recovery of possession of real property. Further, it stipulates that a defendant in such a claim cannot invoke adverse possession as a defence.
What was the rationale for the abolishment of Alberta’s adverse possession laws?
According to the Alberta government, the primary reason for the elimination of adverse possession rules in the province was the protection of property rights. Removing the ability of squatters to claim ownership of land brings peace of mind to private property owners in Alberta. It ensures property owners can continue to use and enjoy their property without continuously protecting their land from trespassers — for example, by monitoring property lines and fixing fences.
Further, advocates and past governments have pushed for the abolition of the doctrine for over a decade. In 2021, the Select Special Committee on Property Rights was formed. The Committee tabled a report in the summer of 2022, recommending the elimination of adverse possession in Alberta. The Alberta Law Reform Institute also reviewed Alberta’s adverse possession laws, and in 2020 provided the government with recommendations to end squatter’s rights, most of which were incorporated into the Act.
Notably, adverse possession has been abolished, or nearly so, in other Canadian jurisdictions with a land title system similar to Alberta’s.
Takeaways for landowners
The combined effect of the amendments under the Act is that adverse possession is effectively abolished in Alberta from now on. However, pursuant to the newly added section 74.1(2) of the Land Titles Act, any previous successful claims to quiet title continue. As a result, those who were granted ownership of land through adverse possession before the Act came into force are not affected, and the original owner of the land cannot reclaim possession as contemplated by the new amendments.
Adverse possession claims that were commenced, but not concluded, before the Act came into force are still subject to the 10-year limitation period established by the Limitations Act prior to the amendments.
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