How to Deal with Squatters
Squatting in residential buildings – houses, flats etc – since 1 October 2012 is a criminal offence in England & Wales. It can lead to 6 months in prison, a £5,000 fine, or both.
Squatting is when someone knowingly enters a building as a trespasser with the intention of living there.
A tenant who enters a property with the permission of the landlord, but who falls into arrears with rent payments, will not be a squatter.
Although squatting in a commercial (non-residential) building or land is NOT in itself a crime, trespassers on non-residential property may be committing other crimes. This is still a civil matter unaffected by the new law and you will need a court order to remove squatters.
Removing squatters from a residential property should, in theory, be much simpler than before as the police will simply remove them providing you have notified them as soon as they are discovered.
However, there’s some scepticism as to how efficient this process may be as the police have traditionally been reluctant to act in civil matters, and what happens if the squatters produce fake tenancy agreements etc?
In the case of commercial premises the process is as before – you need an Interim Possession Order (IPO) to legally remove squatters.
Why a New Squatter Law
Justice Minister Crispin Blunt said:
‘For too long squatters have had the justice system on the run and have caused homeowners untold misery in eviction, repair and clean-up costs. Not anymore. Hard working homeowners need and deserve a justice system where their rights come first – this new offence will ensure the police and other agencies can take quick and decisive action to deal with the misery of squatting.’
A new Offence
The new offence was introduced by Section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 effective from 1 October 2012 following public concern about the harm that trespassers can cause.
It will protect landlords, second homeowners and local authorities who discover trespassers living in residential buildings that they own or control, even if no one was living there at the time the trespassers occupied the building.
If an occupier has no ownership documents, no lease or tenancy agreement, no record of having paid rent to a landlord, and no other evidence of occupancy rights exist, then the occupier is more than likely a squatter and should be removed by the police.
It is perhaps of no consolation to landlords that squatters often believe they have a perfect right to occupy when properties are left vacant, especially for long periods.
Subsection (1) of section 144 sets out the main elements of the offence
The offence is committed when: (1) a person is in a residential building as a trespasser having entered it as such; (2) the person knows or ought to know that they are a trespasser; and (3) the person is living in the building or intends to live there for any period.
A person can only commit the offence if they have entered and remain in the residential building as a trespasser. The offence will not apply to a person who entered the building with permission of the property owner, such as a legitimate tenant.
The person must know or ought to know that s/he is a trespasser. The offence will not capture someone who enters the property in good faith reasonably believing they had permission to do so.
This could arise, for example, where a bogus letting agent encouraged an unsuspecting tenant to occupy somebody else’s property. In such circumstances, however, it might be reasonable to expect the ‘tenant’ to provide evidence of a tenancy agreement or rent payments to show they had a reasonable belief that they were not a trespasser.
The offence also requires that the trespasser ‘is living’ or ‘intends to live’ in the building for any period. The offence does not apply to people who are in the residential building momentarily or have no intention of living there.
The offence cannot be committed by a person holding over after the end of a lease or license (even if the person leaves and re-enters the building). ‘Holding over’ is a term used to describe the situation where a tenancy or licence comes to an end, but the tenant or licensee remains in occupation.
In addition to the new offence of squatting in a residential building, there are a range of other offences which might arise in connection with squatting, depending on the circumstances of the case.
If doors or windows of the property are broken to gain access or items inside have been used damaged or removed, the offences of criminal damage, theft or burglary might be committed. There is also an offence of ‘abstracting electricity’ under section 13 of the Theft Act 1968, which is committed when somebody dishonestly and without due authority causes to be wasted or diverted electricity.
Trespassers who fail to leave a property with 24 hours of service of an interim possession order or return to the premises within a year of such an order being served are also guilty of a summary offence under section 76 of the Criminal
Justice and Public Order Act 1994.
In addition, Section 7 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 (‘section 7 offence’) makes it an offence for a person who is on residential premises as a trespasser having entered as such to refuse to leave a residential property when required to do so by a ‘displaced residential occupier’ or a ‘protected intending occupier’ of the property.
This means that lawful occupiers who have effectively been made homeless by trespassers can require the trespassers to leave and if they refuse to leave the offence can be reported to the police.
The new offence will make it more difficult for trespassers to assert they have rights in respect of residential buildings because their occupation of the building will be a criminal act. The police will have a specific power, under section 17 of PACE, to enter the property to arrest a person who is suspected of squatting in a residential building.
The police should not therefore be deterred if they see a ‘squatters’ rights’ notice on the door of a residential building asserting that it would be an offence for anyone (including the police) to break into the property. The police have lawful authority under section 17 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) codes of practice to enter the property to make an arrest.
Squatting in non-residential properties
A non-residential property is any building or land that isn’t designed to be lived in.
Simply being on another person’s non-residential property without their permission is not usually a crime. But if squatters commit other crimes when entering or staying in a property, the police can take action against them.
These crimes could include:
- causing damage when entering the property
- causing damage while in the property
- not leaving when they’re told to by a court
- stealing from the property
- using utilities like electricity or gas without permission
- not complying with a noise abatement notice
Getting your Non-residential (commercial) Property Back
If you own the property that has been squatted, you must apply to the courts for an interim possession order (IPO) to get your property back.
If you follow the right procedure, you can usually get one issued by the courts within a few days.
To get final possession of the property, you must also make an application for possession when you apply for the IPO.
Use form N130 to apply for an interim possession order and for possession.
You can’t use an IPO if:
- you’re also making a claim for damages caused by the squatters – instead you can make an ordinary claim for possession
- more than 28 days have passed since you found out about the squatters
- you’re trying to evict former tenants, sub-tenants or licensees
Once squatters are served with an IPO, they must leave the property within 24 hours. If they don’t, they’re committing a crime and could serve up to 6 months in prison. It’s also a crime for them to return to the property within 12 months.
Squatters taking Ownership of a Property
It’s difficult and very rare for squatters to take ownership of a property. To do this, they would have to stay in a property without the owner’s permission for at least 10 years. See adverse possession below.
Removing Squatters Quickly
You need to act quickly once you find squatters in your premises.
Your first course of action should be to call the police. You may be asked to prove ownership of the premises, so it is important that you can access ownership documents.
In the case of commercial premises, unless the police are able to remove the squatters quickly because they have committed other criminal offences, you will need to apply to the courts for an Interim Possession Order (IPO).
strong>Interim Possession Order
An IPO is a quicker procedure exists which allows commercial landlords to get the interim possession order, pending a judge’s decision to grant a full possession order.
To assist your case you will be invited to make an undertaking to the court that:
1. You will allow the occupier/s back onto the premises (with compensation) if the court later decides you was not entitled to an interim possession order.
2. You will not re-let the premises, damage or dispose of them until the court makes its final decision by granting a full possession order.
The rules are strict when it comes to serving papers and notices on the squatters – it is easy to fall fowl of the rules here.
Within a few days the court should issue the claim, following which you must serve the court papers on the squatters within 24 hours, either in person or attached to and displayed on the main door of the premises.
If the court grants an interim possession order a copy of the order must be served on the squatters within 48 hours and the squatters will be required to leave within 24 hours and not return within 12 months.
If the squatter/s refuse to leave they are committing a criminal offence and risk being arrested by the police or being evicted by a court bailiff. They may also be subject to a fine or imprisonment or both.
The squatters are entitled to put forward a defence at one further hearing, failing which a full Possession Order will be made. If the squatters are still in possession at this stage, the court bailiff, if necessary assisted by the police, can evict.
The whole process should be capable of being resolved within one to two weeks, providing you can prove your own title and the trespassers cannot show any sort of legal interest in the land.
The Justice.gov website – Information on Squatters
Full details and advice for both parties, known legally as applicants and respondents, owners or landlords and squatters are available on the Justice.gov website.
Landlords’ Guide to Preventing Squatters
Landlords would obviously wish to avoid occupation by squatters in the first place. Sensible precautions would be:
- Keeping properties securely looked when unoccupied. Security is a landlords’ concern not only when their properties are vacant
- Maintain adequate security both when let and when vacant – local police will advise. Landlords can in theory be held responsible for a residential tenant’s losses if properties are vulnerable to burglaries etc., therefore it is in the landlord’s interest to do this
- Vacant premises attract higher insurance premiums for landlords, so you should consult your insurers about measures they require you to take take when your properties are vacant
- Giving the appearance of occupation. Have curtains or blinds in place and perhaps have a neighbour or cleaners make regular visits. Leave radios switched on, and lights on timers
- Commercial premises can often be occupied on a temporary trading basis, on short-term agreements (up to 6 months), particularly shops
- Fence off or adequately barricade areas of vacant land
- Provide regular security patrols if necessary
- There are companies who specialise in providing temporary occupiers for vacant commercial and residential premises – see our Directory under Security
- Make regular visits to premises and vacant land and monitor the situation carefully
- Do not leave premises unoccupied for long periods. Most landlords do not do this as they want to avoid vacant periods. However, there are many instances where properties or land are left vacant for many years
- If you find anyone occupying your property without your consent contact the police immediately. They may be able to act without reference to the courts, though they sometimes need some persuasion to do this
- Try to be present when the police attend as you as owner can advise on the true situation and you want to avoid further damage to the premises
- If the police are unable or not willing to assist, start legal proceedings for an Interim Possession Order immediately
Guide to Removing Squatters
If you discover trespassers or squatters in your property you should be able to remove them quite legally within a two-week period, providing you go about the process correctly:
- Do not try to use force to remove the squatters yourself – you could find yourself accused of a criminal act.
- However, peaceable re-entry is legal and acceptable
- Try to persuade the squatters to leave voluntarily, failing which:
- Contact the police – they should arrest and remove squatters from residential property, and they may be willing to assist with commercial (non-residential squatting) particularly if occupation is recent and there is evidence of forced entry. You should have documents to prove ownership with you
- Try to get evidence to prove to the court that there are unauthorised persons in your property – names of trespassers if possible and statements from other residents and neighbours, and photographs will all be very useful
- Get together evidence of your own ownership – Land Registry documents, title deeds, tenancy surrender documents etc
- Contact bailiffs or a solicitor or start proceedings yourself. See our Directory: Bailiffs & Investigators, Solicitors and Legal Services
- Visit your County Court or the Justice.gov web site – see below
- The process can start through the court within 2 days
- Once the correct notices are issued, the court should allocate an early hearing date
- Squatters must be given five clear days’ notice and notices must be served on them personally, or, failing that, a notice fixed to the door of the property
- The hearing is usually informal. The squatters may turn up and challenge but they must have evidence of a legal interest in the land (e.g., a tenancy) otherwise there is no defence to their claim for possession and the court should issue an Order for Possession
- With a Possession Order the landlord can ask the squatters to leave. If they refuse he will need to instruct the court bailiff to evict, with police assistance if necessary
- Once possession is regained, the locks should be changed and the premises properly secured.
The Squatters’ View
Most squatters believe that they have a right to make use of unoccupied property and indeed a sizeable culture of squatting exists today in the UK. Many web sites now exist to advise and support squatting – often squatters occupying your property know as much, or indeed more, than you do about the law and their minimum rights. This extract from one site gives a flavour:
“Since 1968, over a quarter of a million people in Britain have walked into an uninhabited house owned by someone else and proceeded to set up without seeking permission and without paying rent. By doing so, they have become squatters. Some have been thrown out within hours. Others have stayed for months, even years, before being evicted by bailiffs or leaving under threat of a court order. A few have managed to establish permanent homes.
Most squatting has occurred in old flats and houses in the larger towns and cities, but every conceivable type of empty property has been squatted – from luxury flats to dilapidated slums, from country cottages to suburban semis, from old churches to disused factories
Squatting is an ancient practice, and has occurred at some stage, in different forms, throughout the world. Yet the last 12 years in Britain has seen a spectacular rise in the number of people who have taken over empty buildings. No longer does “squatting” describe the isolated actions of numerous individuals. Instead, it has become a social movement of great significance, whose impact upon housing policy has already been considerable, but whose potential has yet, perhaps, to be fully realised.”
Adverse Possession – The New Regime – a brief overview
Prior to the Land Registration Act 2002 (LRA 2002), a squatter could acquire the right to be registered as proprietor of a registered estate if they had been in adverse possession of the land for a minimum of 12 years.
The LRA 2002 has created a new regime that applies only to registered land. This new regime is set out in Schedule 6 to the Act. It makes it more likely that a registered proprietor will be able to prevent an application for adverse possession of their land being completed. The following paragraphs provide a brief overview of the new regime:
- Adverse possession of registered land for 12 years of itself will no longer affect the registered proprietor’s title
- After 10 years’ adverse possession, the squatter will be entitled to apply to be registered as proprietor in place of the registered proprietor of the land
- On an application being made the registered proprietor (and other persons interested in the land) will be notified and given the opportunity to oppose the application
- If the application is not opposed, the squatter will be registered as proprietor in place of the registered proprietor of the land
- If the application is opposed, it will be rejected unless certain specific criteria are met by the squatter
- Justice.gov – squatting:
- Land registry – Adverse Possession: http://www.landregistry.gov.uk/professional/guides/practice-guide-5
By Tom Entwistle,
©LandlordZONE All Rights Reserved – never rely totally on these general guidelines which apply primarily to England and Wales. They are not definitive statements of the law. Before taking action or not, always do your own research and/or seek professional advice with the full facts of your case and all documents to hand.