It sounds like the plot from a movie, but two men are among a handful of Queenslanders who have successfully taken over someone else's land by simply moving in.

It took 35 years, a legal battle spanning a decades, thousands of dollars in unpaid rates and a lot of gumption, but using a little-known "squatters rights" law, a Brisbane lawyer and his brother-in-law were able to get a free holiday home on Moreton Island.

According to documents filed in the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal it was 1978 when Lionel Cedric Julian Lees and his now former brother-in-law, Peter Franklin Moore inspected two abandoned and overgrown blocks, just metres from the water, in the tiny township of Bulwer.

Mr Lees undertook Titles Office and Court searches, which revealed one block had been registered to Edgar Hinetable since 1863 and the other to David Elliott since 1868.

He found nothing to indicate the estates of Mr Hinetable or Mr Elliott had ever been administered.

‘Squatter’ Lionel Cedric Julian Lees.
‘Squatter’ Lionel Cedric Julian Lees.

Mr Lees and Mr Moore then took possession of the land, clearing the boundary lines and fencing both lots.

Court documents show Mr Lees and Mr Moore maintained fences, cleared weeds and paid rates and land taxes.

In 1991 the men applied to become registered owners of the land, as adverse possessors (the legal term for squatters rights), but it was rejected because the Supreme Court had decided in a similar case that 30 years of adverse possession was required.

Undeterred the men built a holiday house on one of the blocks in 1997, using it for family vacations and renting it out to tourists.

In 2012 the men again applied to become the owners of the land, no caveats were lodged and in April 2013 - 35 years from when they first set foot on the land - they were successful.

The men, now believed to be aged in their 80s, still own the land.

Mr Lees also owns a waterfront home at Hamilton and is believed to be on an extended trip in New Zealand.

The Sunday Mail sought comment from Mr Lees, but he declined.

Mr Moore's whereabouts are unknown.

The Bulwer property that was successfully taken over by ‘squatters’.
The Bulwer property that was successfully taken over by ‘squatters’.

Bulwer local, Don Rankin, said it wasn't the only case of "squatters rights" on the island.

He said in the 1970s and 80s many abandoned blocks were still registered to those who had bought them in the 1860s.

"There's been probably about 10 or who got title over the years," he said.

"They're nice blocks of land.

"Some people pull a stink about it … they would've been worth about $16,000 back in the day.

In the past five years there have been 20 applications of adverse possession in Queensland, with 13 successful.

Property law expert and Griffith University Associate Professor Kate Galloway said lawyers, town planners, valuers and real estate agents were commonly the ones who could take advantage of squatter's rights to take over plots of land.

"They know what land is around," Prof Galloway said.

"They might do a death search … There are public records that you can look up."

Prof Galloway said squatters for 12 years were able to go to the Titles Office to then register to take over the land from its previous owner.

"You can't be secretive about it," she said.

"Absolutely it's a gamble.

"It is uncommon and really hard to use - you've got all of those hurdles to get through."

Bulwer, on Moreton Island.
Bulwer, on Moreton Island.

Gibbs Wright litigation director Spencer Wright said he had advised people on adverse possession previously, but stressed it was uncommon.

"We've definitely had to advise on it before, and it is a concern of ours that we don't want a legitimate owner to accidentally lose their land," he said.

Cases involved people concerned that someone they'd allowed to live on their land would try to claim squatter's rights.

Describing the law as "archaic" and at times "inequitable," Mr Wright said no one would blink if adverse possession were to disappear.

"There would be no obvious impact of abolishing the law," he said

He said adverse possession cases he'd seen or heard about most commonly related to he-said, she-said scenarios.

"Circumstances where they don't want someone on the land to claim adverse possession, when they don't have a contract," he said.

"Now we have two people who are saying completely two different things."

Mr Wright said it was surprising how uncommon squatter's rights were invoked, given that there were 195,570 unoccupied homes in Queensland according to the 2016 ABS census.

Originally published as How squatters exploited loophole for free slice of paradise


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