Monday 20 September 2021

Squatter’s Rights – What Are The Implications in Costa Rica?

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Image for illustrative purposes, from
Image for illustrative purposes, from

QCOSTARICA – Squatter’s Rights, or Prescriptive Rights, as they are formally referred to as in the English Common Law jurisdictions, such as the U.S., Canada, and English Commonwealth Countries, have largely been abolished by Statute during the last one hundred and twenty year period, in those jurisdictions.

Unfortunately, that same transformation has not taken place in Civil Law (Roman Law) jurisdictions such as Costa Rica.

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The whole idea of Squatter’s Rights, that is rights to possess and occupy land without taking formal title to it, arose from the original settlement of Costa Rica as an agriculturally based nation.

In the settlement process, large tracts of land, much of which was suited for agricultural purposes, were granted by the Spanish Monarchy, to their friends and other members of the Spanish Nobility.

In short, many of the Spanish Noble owners of these lands never came to occupy, or otherwise develop them, not wanting to associate themselves with “a bunch of heathens” in the New World.

Accordingly, the notion of Squatter’s Rights developed, to allow the cultivation of these somewhat abandoned properties by third parties willing to occupy and convert them into sustained agricultural production.

This was seen as a good thing for the Costa Rican Society as a whole, rather than to leave the lands fallow. Such third parties were granted rights of possession and occupation of the lands under the law, acquired over-time, in return for their labours of farming them; hence, “Squatter’s Rights” came into being.

Now, fast forward to what Squatter’s Rights means today in Costa Rica. In present day Costa Rica, Squatter’s Rights stands for nothing more than a perversion of the law. Agricultural production is conducted in a completely different manner than it was two hundred years ago, when these Rights arose.

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Albeit, there are many more legal restrictions associated with acquiring such Rights today than previous. Vacant land in rural areas of the Country is more at risk, with organized “gangs” of squatters ready to occupy such lands, for the sole purpose of acquiring Squatter’s Rights over time and ultimately stealing the land from the rightful, registered title owner.

It has become nothing more than a legalized business of land thievery. Such Rights begin to be acquired after only ninety days of uninterrupted occupation of the land by the squatters, in an open and peaceful manner, and culminates in an Application to the Court by the squatter(s) to acquire a registered title to the land, following a ten year period of such occupation.

The only way to protect yourself as the registered owner of the property title of such lands, is to fence the perimeter of them, placing “Private Property/Keep Out” signs every few meters around the perimeter, and hiring a caretaker under a written contract to watch the lands and report to you as the owner, of any observed squatter activity.

The irony of having to have a written contract with the caretaker, is that if the legal relationship between the land owner and the caretaker is not clear, the caretaker can in-fact acquire the Squatter’s Rights that you as the owner are trying to protect against.

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Obviously, the short and long-term solution to this perversion of the law, is to abolish Squatter’s Rights by Statute, as has been done in English Common Law jurisdictions.

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Richard Philps
Attorney Richard (Rick) Philps is a Canadian citizen, naturalized as a citizen of Costa Rica. Rick practiced law in Victoria, B.C., Canada as a member of the Law Society of British Columbia, for fourteen years, prior to moving to Costa Rica in 1998. Rick then earned his Bachelor of Laws and Licensing Degrees (Civil Law), with Honours, and a Post-Graduate Degree in Notary and Registry Law, from the Metropolitana Castro Carazo and Escuela Libre de Derecho Universities, in San Jose. Rick is a member of the Costa Rica College of Lawyers, and practices law in Costa Rica in the areas of real estate and development, corporate, commercial, contract, immigration, and banking. To contact Attorney Rick Philps about hiring him as your Costa Rican Attorney; Email:, Website:

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