UK: Suffering With The Squats

Last Updated: 27 October 2013
Article by Nick Saville and Adam Colenso

Since the criminalisation of squatting in residential premises last year, the problems of damage, delay and cost caused by squatters have shifted to commercial properties increasing the burden on their owners. We explore the extent of the problem, recent developments and what can be done.

A shifting problem

Following the criminalisation of squatting in residential premises in 2012, there appears to have been a surge in squatting in commercial premises.  Though the government acknowledged this likelihood when consultation regarding the new offence took place and indicated it would keep the law under review,  there is no likelihood of squatting in commercial premises becoming a criminal offence in this Parliament. 

The sometimes dishevelled image of squatters belies often well-organised and determined groups.  Local authorities have seen a significant rise in Freedom of Information Requests for details of empty commercial properties.  The Information Commissioner has, though, been prepared to accept that councils can refuse disclosure to prevent crime.1  Empty commercial units are, however, easily identifiable from a drive-by.

The current framework

Faced with squatters in commercial buildings, the owner has two options:

  1. Standard possession order: A court claim is required, proving title and detailing the trespass in a witness statement.  These papers are personally served on site and a court hearing fixed.  Unless an arguable defence is raised possession is usually granted immediately but the landlord will incur costs and face delay in securing an eviction.
  2. Interim Possession Order:Similar evidence is required, additionally showing that squatters entered without consent and the owner has not been aware of occupation for over 28 days.  The advantage is potentially speed.  Having obtained and served the order, squatters have 24 hours to leave, failing which the police may arrest them.  IPO's have been under-utilised as a process largely because two hearings will be needed, increasing costs.

What if squatters return? 

It is easier and cheaper to enforce an order than start new proceedings.  But it is more difficult to rely on the original order the longer the period has passed since the order, or if there is no evidence of connection between the squatters.

Adjacent land

Particularly where squatters are on open land, there is a real risk that even after eviction, they will simply move outside the boundary specified in the order.  Owners should identify all neighbouring land they own and assert a risk of subsequent occupation, otherwise the order only applies to land physically occupied.  In appropriate cases, it is worth asking adjoining landowners to join as Claimants as costs may be split. 

Article 8 impact

The recent case of Malik2 concerned organised squatters occupying land potentially marked for a third runway at Heathrow.  Article 8 (respect for home) of the European Convention on Human Rights was found to be engaged and the Court of Appeal opened a window to allow "in exceptional circumstances" further time for squatters to leave.  Owners should be prepared to rebut this argument.

What can owners do?

The relatively new phenomenon of "Property Guardians" involves an agreement with a property guardian organisation, who arranges for vetted individuals to occupy a building.  To avoid the risk of an inadvertent tenancy, they are given non-exclusive temporary licences.  The limited presence is often sufficient to put potential squatters off breaking in.  Some basic alterations (kitchen, bathroom etc) may be necessary, but it can be money well spent especially for long vacant periods.

Practical tips

  • Never consent to trespassers entering or remaining
  • Obtain as much evidence as possible about the squatters – e.g. photos showing the occupation, vehicle registrations and (if safe) individuals as well as details about names, language, appearance and conduct (such as house clearance)
  • Consider practical deterrents such as blocking entrances/exits for vehicles
  • Don't delay action.  There are time limits:
    • 28 days for IPO's
    • 3 months for enforcing a possession order
    • Consider "Property Guardian" options

Footnotes

1 Voyias v Information Commissioner & LB Camden [2013]

2 Malik v Fassenfelt & Others [2013] EWCA Civ798

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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