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To have a title to some item of property is to have some right to claim 'ownership' of it. In English law title is always relative and, in a dispute over title, the 'true' owner of property may well be irrelevant. Title is not easty to define, but the following are some characteristics that may be useful.
- Title is generally relative, not absolute. Person A may have a better title than person B, and C's title may be better than B's. But none of these people has an absolute title, and in theory there may be a person D somewhere with better title than any of them.
- Title is always bound up with the notion of possession; in general, anyone who has possession or control of something has some title, however weak.
- A person with a stronger title will be able to recover in court either the item itself or the value of the item. In turn, that person's title may be defeated by another person with a stronger title. In order to limit the amount of litigation generated by chains of title, the Torts interference with goods act (1977) sets out procedures for identifying possible claimants and resolving the issue in one hearing.
- In general, earlier possession of something confers a stronger title, unless the earlier possessor disposes of the title. For example, if I steal a car from you, you have a better title to the car because you possessed it before I did. You could take action against me to recover the car, and this would be true even if you yourself had stolen it from someone else. This is unlikely to happen in practice, of course. However, if buy the car from you then you have disposed of your title, and my title is now as sound as yours was. In summary, a court hearing over title concerns who has the better title, not who is the 'real owner' of the property.
- In general, the owner of the land on which some moveable object is disposed has a better title to it than a non-owner, which accords with the view that earlier possession accords a superior title. However, where the land is a place to which the public have access, and some item is lost on the land, then the owner of the land may not have a stronger title than someone who finds the item (see: Parker v british airways board (1981).
- If A and B both have better title to some property than C, and C is in possession of it, then there is no reason in principle why A and B cannot both take action against C for recovery, and for C to be liable to both of them. If C returns the item to B, what does he have to give to A? He will have to offer some other form of compensation (usually money). The Torts interference with goods act (1977) stipulates that B, who has been 'unjustly enriched' by the transaction, must compensate C.
- The principle of nemo dat quod non habet ('one can't give what one doesn't have') applies; that is, title to property can be sold or otherwise transferred, but the title is no stronger than the original title (with certain exceptions). For example, if X buys a stolen car from Y, then X does not acquire a title that is stronger than the thief's title. Since this is weaker than the original owner's title, X has a weaker title than the original owner, and may be liable to him. This is unfortunate for X. In theory, X could recover from Y (the thief), but in practice Y may not be around. Common law conventions on how title moves with goods are codified in the Sale of goods act (1979) (see: Passage of title).
- Actions for recovery of property by holders of superior title must be begun within statutory time limits: 6 years for personal property and 12 years for real property.
See also defective title.