Law change could assist Scottish galleries - Museums Association

Law change could assist Scottish galleries

Proposals on property ownership could simplify loans and disposals
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Geraldine Kendall Adams
The Scottish Law Commission has produced a report that recommends clarifying the country’s law on property ownership, a change that should help museums and galleries cut out paperwork and catalogue collections more easily.

The report seeks to codify new rules that would allow for a positive prescription on movable property – for example, converting a possession to legal ownership after a set number of years.

This would bring Scotland in line with other countries.  The report proposes creating a rule that applies to lent or deposited material where the owner is unknown.

Under the new rule, if the owner of an item cannot be traced using reasonable diligence after 50 years, legal ownership will pass to the holder.

Janet Ulph, professor of commercial law at Leicester University, who contributed to the report, said: “This is significant, as it will allow museums to freely offer such objects on loan or dispose of them if necessary. A lot of museums have problems with this under the current system.”

A further rule would allow ownership of objects – acquired in good faith – whose provenance is later called into question to transfer to the holder after 20 years.

Following advice from the heritage sector, the commission has excluded objects classed as “treasure trove” from the proposed rules and embedded Scotland’s current practice in this area into the report.

Neil Curtis, head of museums at the University of Aberdeen, said: “I’ve been very pleased that the commission discussed as much as it did with the museum sector – it has really listened.”

Andrew Steven, lead commissioner on the report, said the reforms would bring clarity and economic benefit, while maintaining “appropriate safeguards to protect the original owner”.

Ulph added that the law on ownership of movable property still needed to be clarified in England. “We are trying to agitate the English Law Commission to take a look at this,” she said.

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