Escheat, bona vacantia and disclaimer by the Crown
Escheat, bona vacantia and disclaimer by the Crown

The following Property guidance note provides comprehensive and up to date legal information covering:

  • Escheat, bona vacantia and disclaimer by the Crown
  • Escheat
  • Bona vacantia
  • Disclaimer of bona vacantia


Paramount lordship of the Crown

The principle which underlies the doctrine of escheat is a remnant of the feudal system of land tenure. Under that system, all land in England, Wales and Northern Ireland is ultimately vested in the Crown — this is the principle of ‘paramount lordship’. However, others may hold a legal estate in land: the (relatively) modern embodiment of this can be found in section 1 of the Law of Property Act 1925 (LPA 1925), which provides for the existence of the freehold (and leasehold) estate. The holder of one of these estates enjoys all the attendant benefits of ‘ownership’ as that term is understood today.

A leasehold estate is self-evidently limited in time. But even a freehold estate (ie the fee simple absolute) can come to an end if it does not have an owner: see When escheat can occur below. The absence of an owner of the freehold estate means that the land reverts (or, to use the feudal term, ‘escheats’) to the Crown as ‘demesne land’, entitling the Crown to exercise its ultimate right of ownership: see Attorney-General of Ontario (Informant) v Andrew F Mercer (Defendant) (1883) 8 App Cas (not reported by LexisNexis®).

The Royal Duchies

There are two scenarios where freehold land does not escheat directly to the Crown. Freehold land