Author: Alison Mould
Christmas is coming and professional squatters are surveying high streets throughout the country for convenient vacant units from which they can trade over the festive season. Not only that though – there are, apparently, websites where convenient empty units can be located.
Six to eight weeks’ trading in rent and rate free accommodation is all they need. In small shopping parades where there are several voids, some landlords may feel that squatted shops look occupied and encourage footfall.
However, these illegal occupiers can cause substantial and severe damage to a property and a landlord’s chances of letting it. Proactive property management and preventative action are the recommended course for any landlord.
If the property is a residential property, thankfully the police do have powers, as squatting in a residential building is a crime under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. The police seem happy to use these powers where they apply. Squatters in commercial premises are less easy to evict.
Having identified a target unit, most commercial squatters will break into it to gain entry. However, as they will maintain that the locks were broken when they came across the property, landlords are left without any evidence to support a criminal prosecution. The police regard this as a civil matter and are reluctant to become involved.
Once the commercial squatter has gained entry, the unit is normally kitted out with a selection of low-grade fittings. Shop windows contain brash displays of bright colours, often bearing signs indicating a “closing down sale” or “bankrupt stock – everything must go”.
The key to effective squatting is to ensure the premises are occupied for 24 hours a day. The landlord is unable to regain possession by changing the locks during non-trading hours as the landlord may then be committing one of two criminal offences, namely false imprisonment, by changing locks with someone inside, or breaching the provisions of the Protection from Eviction Act 1977 where a property has become a squatter’s “residence”.
It is not unknown for squatters to place signs on the doors or windows, seemingly addressed to potential burglars, indicating that someone remains on the premises 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The target audience is, in fact, the landlord, informing them that a court order will be required to regain possession.
Commercial squatters pose huge insurance risks and insurers should always be notified when squatters are present to ensure that policies are not vitiated. Squatters’ activities are unregulated by a formal lease and they pay no rent, rates, service charge or insurance.
In addition, premises can be left in serious states of disrepair and damage. While a landlord may have a claim against the squatters for this damage, squatters are often impossible to pursue as they become untraceable once evicted. Landlords may be left with huge redecorating costs before being able to market the unit again.
The problem of squatters affects all large towns and cities throughout the year, but particularly so over the festive season. It is simply impossible for landlords to secure premises sufficiently to avoid squatters entering them and trading unlawfully. Erring on the side of caution by employing full-time security guards can be expensive and, if a void unit takes some time to let, may not be cost-effective. Difficulties also arise where a site cannot be secured; for example where car parks or open land are not bordered on all sides with a fence or gate.
Prompt action is the most effective method of securing vacant possession. “Deals” with the squatters with or without payment should never be done – they are never complied with!
It is possible to obtain an order for possession through a county court within ten to 14 days after first being instructed. Difficulty can arise when the order comes to be enforced. County court orders for possession are enforced through court bailiffs. Many bailiffs’ departments are overworked and understaffed so eviction dates can often be six to eight weeks after the order for possession is made.
However, once a landlord has obtained an order for possession, the trick is to immediately transfer the proceedings to the High Court for enforcement. This is effective, but used infrequently. The Sheriffs enforce possession orders in the High Court and can evict squatters within 48 hours of the order being obtained. Clearly this has huge advantages from a landlord’s point of view.
Court proceedings are not cheap and the landlord is highly unlikely to recover the costs even if an order for costs is obtained. However, possession can be obtained within three weeks and provide the landlord with the knowledge that the premises are at least secure and no longer at risk.
While many landlords may resign themselves to putting up with their unwelcome guests until the new year, they may find that in the long term it is more cost-effective to obtain a court order, to regain possession and continue with their attempts to relet.
Alison Mould, Partner, Fladgate LLP (firstname.lastname@example.org)