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The Supreme Court has clarified that a person cannot claim possessory title over property merely on account of casual act of possession.
Possessory title may be claimed by persons who have been in effective, settled possession of the property in question. The Bench of Justices NV Ramana and MM Shantanagoudar summed up the position thus,
“It cannot be disputed and is by now well settled that ‘settled possession’ or effective possession of a person without title entitles him to protect his possession as if he were a true owner.
… a person who asserts possessory title over a particular property will have to show that he is under settled or established possession of the said property. But merely stray or intermittent acts of trespass do not give such a right against the true owner. Settled possession means such possession over the property which has existed for a sufficiently long period of time, and has been acquiesced to by the true owner. A casual act of possession does not have the effect of interrupting the possession of the rightful owner. A stray act of trespass, or a possession which has not matured into settled possession, can be obstructed or removed by the true owner even by using necessary force.”
Under Indian law, even those who do not actually have title over property cannot be forcibly evicted by illegal and unreasonable means by the rightful owners if they have possessory title over the property in question. Possessory title is contrasted with proprietary title, which entail property rights based on title deeds. While proprietary title is superior to possessory title, a person holding title is still expected to adhere to the process of the law before dispossessing a person having possessory title over property.
However, in order to claim such possessory title, the Court noted that the following factors should be examined,
“Settled possession must be (i) effective, (ii) undisturbed, and (iii) to the knowledge of the owner or without any attempt at concealment by the trespasser [i.e. person claiming possessory title].”
All the same, the Court went on to observe,
“There cannot be a straitjacket formula to determine settled possession. Occupation of a property by a person as an agent or a servant acting at the instance of the owner will not amount to actual legal possession. The possession should contain an element of animus possidendi. The nature of possession of the trespasser is to be decided based on the facts and circumstances of each case.“
The Bench was prompted to make these observations while allowing an appeal filed in a land dispute dating back to 1984. The plaintiff had filed a suit for declaration of title over certain property, claiming that he had been wrongfully dispossessed of the property in 1972 by the defendants. The plaintiff claimed that he had been enjoying peaceful possession i.e. possessory title over the said property until his dispossession.
As such, he invoked Section 64 of the Limitation Act, 1963 in filing his suit. Section 64 of the Limitation Act contemplates a suit for possession of immovable property based on previous possession and not on title, if brought within 12 years from the date of dispossession.
On the other hand, the defendant argued that he had title documents to prove that he was the rightful owner. The trial court in the case ruled in the plaintiff’s favour. The first appellate court reversed the finding and upheld the defendant’s claim to the property. On further appeal, the High Court dismissed the first appellate court’s findings and upheld the trial court’s verdict in favour of the plaintiff.
However, the Supreme Court found that the High Court had erred in ruling in the plaintiff’s favour given that there was little evidence on record to show that the plaintiff had enjoyed continuous, settled possession over the said property.
“Merely on doubtful material and cursory evidence, it cannot be held that the plaintiff was ever in possession of the property, and that too in settled possession …
… mere casual possession… would not prove settled possession of the plaintiff.“
Apart from title deeds proving the defendant’s rights over the property, the Supreme Court also took note of a 1957 sanction to construct a house on the disputed property, granted in favour of the person who had sold the property to the defendant (i.e. his predecessor in interest). This further strengthened the claim of the defendant over the disputed property. The Court noted,
“Obviously such sanction would have been accorded only on the basis of title and possession of the property.“
In view of these observations, the Court set aside the High Court judgment and dismissed the plaintiff’s suit.
“The impugned judgment of the High Court dated 28.08.2006 and its review stands set aside and the judgment of the First Appellate Court is restored. Consequently, suit stands dismissed.“
Read the Judgment: