People are said to own land when they purchase it from the previous owner, but if you follow the chain of ownership back far enough, there must have been a point where there was no previous owner and someone simply claimed that land by force (or threat of force). This means that all subsequent "owners" are "handling stolen goods". How is this situation resolved legally? Is it by use of the "statute of limitations" or was there some government decree saying "never mind previous thefts, all is forgiven" or something else?... or is is just unresolved?

I'm most interested in the case of the UK, but answers for any country would be interesting.

  • You can't steal something that doesn't belong to anyone. By your premise, nothing (including land) belongs to anyone since they just happened upon and claimed it, or were given it by someone who had, and so on. So, theft is impossible by your premise.
    – Patrick87
    Dec 29, 2016 at 13:39
  • 3
    "Claiming by force" is not the same as "theft". Dec 29, 2016 at 23:28
  • 1
    Rule 49 - War Booty of the Geneva Convention applies in some scenarios of modern force seizure: "All private property actually used for hostile purposes found on the battlefield or in a combat zone may be appropriated by a belligerent State as booty of war."
    – bishop
    Dec 30, 2016 at 0:55
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    The 17th-century English philosopher John Locke said the way to acquire ownership of unowned land was by mixing one's labor with the land. I.e. you build a farm or something else of value on it. Dec 30, 2016 at 4:11

2 Answers 2


There is no "theft" without a law that defines what "property" is and what "theft" is.

Laws derive from the state that has the power to enforce them.

A state may issue the laws and decrees and stablish who owns the lands. It can later make changes to that ownership.

When the Normans invaded England, Willian I became the legal authority and with that he could award, confiscate and keep lands as he saw fit, without that being considered "theft" in any legal sense of the word.

The English government (and all others) still have the authority to take away, redistribute and otherwise change the ownership of lands as they see fit, and nothing of it would be theft.

Internally most of them have chosen to stablish some procedures to ensure that this is only done when needed by meeting some tests (eminent domain), but even if they didn't have those (again, self-imposed) restrictions they still would be able to change ownership as they saw fit.

That does not mean that a government using that power to punish political opponents or ethnic minorities would not face internal and external protests.


Legally (in common-law countries like the UK and US), this is generally handled through adverse possession. Adverse possession is essentially a statute of limitations on land title; it limits how long you can look back to see if a title is valid. If you're openly using land in a manner incompatible with the true owner's use for some number of years, you become the true owner of the land. Originally, adverse possession law in England said "any claim to land cannot rely on evidence about who owned it before the reign of King Someking," but these days it's a certain number of years instead.

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