Kirstin Nee: Avoid being held to ransom over ransom strips

Kirstin Nee is Senior Underwriter at DUAL Asset Underwriting, a partner agency of Mlllar & Bryce
Kirstin Nee is Senior Underwriter at DUAL Asset Underwriting, a partner agency of Mlllar & Bryce
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Property Law and Land Registration in principle is designed to make the selling and buying of land as easy as possible. It undoubtedly does this, for the most part. Unfortunately, the reality of conveyancing is that there are many pitfalls and defects that can make what appears an easy deal, an uphill struggle.

Whether it’s a multi-million pound development or someone buying their first ever flat, title defects have given many a lawyer sleepless nights. There are numerous defects which could affect the deal, with one of the most common and problematic being the ransom strip.

These ransom strips are small, but vital areas or strips of land, which sit outwith a title, but are integral for the enjoyment of the property. Most commonly, these relate to access to the property, either from a public road or between another property, and can sometimes be as narrow and seemingly insignificant as six inches.

Small though the strip may be, these areas are far from insignificant. If the land is owned by a third party and your client does not have documented rights to use the route, they are essentially at risk of trespassing if they enter or cross it.

The problem conveyancers face is they are often unnoticed and can be particularly difficult to spot with rural property and estates due to old titles and maps. Whatever the reason, they are problematic and if not dealt with appropriately, your client is at risk of a long and expensive legal battle.

In recent years, there have been some highly publicised cases where ransom strips have caused not only costly financial issues, but serious delays to build projects, the development at Edinburgh Accies in Stockbridge being the most topical, where a 2ft wide strip was owned by adjoining land owners, who voted to assert their legal right to the land and a reported £1 million ‘ransom’ as a result.

With planning already secured for the rugby pitch and 2500-seat stand, alongside bars, shops and other facilities, the legal row rumbled on for a more than a year before it was dismissed at The Court of Session last year. More than 12 months’ delay to the development.

Other notable ransom strip disputes include:

– Mapping errors in earlier conveyances

– The extent of a road, which has been publicly adopted, not quite meeting the land your client has title to

– With financial gain in mind

Land purchasers need to be alert to the existence of ransom strips, and it’s down to us as the legal counsel to carry out thorough due diligence ahead of any procurement. If any issues are identified as part of this, there are options that can help resolve them:

Find out who the owner is and approach them to try to correct the issue. Search provider Millar & Bryce work with clients to identify ownership in the land register; even when the land hasn’t yet made it onto the land register they can usually identify ownership. Prior to land registration, land ownership was recorded in the historic sasine register and searching this can be complex and requires a high degree of skill and experience. Millar & Bryce on a day to day basis deal with complex enquiries on land ownership.

Obtain title insurance, that way, should a claim ever happen, the insurers take care of it for the land-owner and either correct the position or provide them with cover for any actual loss suffered due to the ransom strip. They will also usually cover potential legal costs. DUAL Asset Underwriting have one of the most experienced legal underwriters in the market.

The overarching message to take from this is that these things happen, but there are options that will hopefully prevent any risk to the property, and indeed the bank balance.

Kirstin Nee is senior underwriter at DUAL Asset Underwriting, a partner agency of Mlllar & Bryce