Settled Possession For Possessory Title

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Although, the proposition remains that “possession is nine-tenth of the law”, but the “settled possession” is must to establish possessory title rights in an immovable property under Indian law. Despite several judgements on the law on adverse possession, the possessory title claims were more often based on “land grabbing”. The Hon’ble Supreme Court of India on January 29, 2019, in the matter of Poona Ram vs. Moti Ram & Others, while explaining the law on possession and ownership of immovable property, held that “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.”

Just to get to some basic facts of the case. In Poona Ram vs. Moti Ram & Others, Moti Ram had filed a suit in which he claimed possessory title which seemed merely based on his prior possession for a number of years, however he did not have any documents supporting his possession. On the contrary, Poona Ram submitted title deeds to the suit property claiming better title to the suit property. The Trial court decreed the suit and the First Appellate court reversed the findings of the Trial court holding that Poona Ram had proved Poona Ram’s title and possession over the suit property. The High Court of Rajasthan (“High Court”) however, restored the Trial court’s order and held that since Poona Ram was not able to establish (i) a better title, or dispossession of Moti Ram in accordance with law; or (ii) Moti Ram not being in possession of the suit property, Moti Ram had the possessory title to the suit property basis his long term possession. Accordingly, an appeal was filed by Poona Ram in the Apex Court.

The essential element laid out by the Supreme Court in Poona Ram vs. Moti Ram was that 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. In the said appeal, the Supreme Court bench comprising of Justice NV Ramana and Justice MM Shantanagoudar examined whether Moti Ram had better title over the suit property and whether he was in settled possession of the property, which required dispossession in accordance with law.

The Apex Court, while deciding the said matter, elaborated on the meaning of the term “settled possession” and held that, “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.” The Apex Court further laid down the essential elements of settled possession and held that settled possession must be (i) effective; (ii) undisturbed; and (iii) to the knowledge of the owner and, or without any attempt at concealment by the trespasser.

The law provides for the difference between a possessory title and a proprietary title. Article 65 to Schedule I of the Limitation Act, 1963 (“Limitation Act”), prescribes a timeline of 12 years, within which an aggrieved person may file a suit for recovery of possession of immovable property or any interest therein based on proprietary title (based on title documents). This timeline is applicable from the point of time “when the possession of the defendants becomes adverse to the plaintiff”. Further, Article 64 to Schedule I of the Limitation Act, prescribes a timeline of 12 years within which an aggrieved person may file a suit for recovery of possession of immovable property or any interest therein based on possessory title (based on possession). This timeline is applicable from the date of dispossession of the aggrieved person from the suit property. The Limitation Act further lays down that if a person fails to file suit for recovery of possession, within the aforesaid period of limitation, his right to recover the possession of that property also extinguishes.

The Apex Court while reversing the order of the High Court held that the conclusion arrived at by the High Court and the reasons assigned for the same are not correct as there is absolutely no material on record to show possessory title of Moti Ram in the suit property. The Apex Court further held that in order to claim possessory title, Moti Ram was required to show that he had settled possession over the suit property and that he had better title to the suit property than any other person. Accordingly, since there was no documentary proof that Moti Ram was in settled possession of the suit property, the appeal was dismissed and the High Court order was reversed.

In light of the above, the following are the key take-aways on a possessory title claim:

(i) the claimant must prove his own case and show that he has better title than any other person;

(ii) better title to the property must be proved by passing the test of “settled or established possession” that is by showing an intention to possess and subsequent possession of the subject property for a sufficiently period of time (under the law), with the acquiescence and knowledge of the owner of the subject property;

(iii) such “settled possession” must be effective and undisturbed, and without any attempt at concealment by a trespasser; and

(iv) the claimant cannot succeed on the weakness of the case of the opposite party.

This is certainly a very welcoming judgement and will help reducing frivolous possessory title claims.

Authors:
Hardeep Sachdeva, Senior Partner
Nitin Saluja, Associate

Published In:Lex Witness
Date: February 28, 2019