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Usucaption is a method by which ownership of property (i.e. title to the property) can be gained by possession of it beyond the lapse of a certain period of time (acquiescence). While usucaption has been compared with adverse possession (that is, squatting), the true effect of usucaption is to remedy defects in title.
The necessity for usucaption arose in Roman law with the divide between res mancipi and res nec mancipi. Res mancipi required elaborate and inconvenient formal methods of conveyance to transfer title (a formal mancipatio ceremony, or in iure cessio). Res nec manicipi could be transferred by traditio (delivery) or in iure cessio.
The remaining form of conveyance was traditio. This was an informal conveyance which required only an intention to transfer and delivery of the property. If res mancipi were transferred by traditio, full ownership would not pass and the recipient would become a bonitary owner.
Therefore another form of conveyance was required that did not necessitate a ceremony or appearance before the praetor. Because Rome was becoming mercantile, it was simply inconvenient to perform a formal conveyance simply because property was classed as res mancipi. There might also be a demand to transfer property in private between the transferring parties, such as in the establishment of fideicommissa (Roman trusts).
The need for establishing ownership by means other than conveyance was also a result of the practical defect of a system of ownership based on valid transfer. Title to property could be challenged under this system, because it depended on the good title of the person from whom you acquired the property and so on. If any person's title in the chain were challenged successfully, then this would defeat any title derived from it. This defect required a means of establishing ownership that was not contingent upon a chain of title but could be established independently.
The Roman Law of Usucapio
If however a bonitary owner kept the res (property) in his possession for a certain amount of time (two years for land, one year for chattels) his title would become full title and he could assert himself as dominus.
- Uninterrupted possession of the property for the requisite period (one year for chattels, two years for land);
- The property was capable of being owned. Not a free man for example;
- Good faith. For example, a buyer might purchase a slave (categorised as res mancipi) in good faith but find twelve months on that the vendor did not himself have good title to that slave;
- Iusta causa. A proper ground for acquiring the property, e.g. showing that the acquirer paid for the property.
- The property must not have been at any time stolen or taken by force.
This largely ameliorated the problems experienced by conveyance as a means of establishing ownership, but could still yield harsh results. A purchaser of res mancipi could be on his way to successfully usucaping the property (e.g. 11 months in possession) but would lose his claim to it if his possession was challenged before the period of usucaption by someone who could establish title.
Usucaption was altered by the Actio Publiciana (see Gaius 4.36) which gave scope in the vindicatio (the action for property) for a fictitious usucaption. Such a situation would only arise where the claimant's possession of the property had been interrupted before the period required to usucape it had elapsed. The Actio Publiciana made provision for the possessor of the property to be taken to have usucaped it successfully, if he could show that he would have usucaped the property had his possession of it not been interrupted. In this way usucaption became the dominant form of establishing ownership in Rome.
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