‘Tis The Season For Festive Squatters

Our team: Kirsty Smith

We have previously written about the problems caused to property owners by squatters targeting vacant buildings to occupy, particularly over the Christmas period. This article is a reminder of the problems caused by, and the ways of dealing with, squatters in residential and commercial properties.

Commercial premises 

Squatters often look for vacant units from which they can trade “rent-free” over the festive period. As squatting in a commercial property is not a criminal offence (as it is for residential property), the options available to owners of commercial premises have fewer teeth and commercial property owners face an uphill battle to evict trespassers. In particular:

  • Unless a property owner has witnessed a squatter breaking into the premises, the Police are unlikely to be interested.
  • A property owner is unable to regain possession by changing the locks out of trading hours, as the owner risks committing the offences of false imprisonment (if some squatters are still in the building), or breaching the Protection from Eviction Act (if the property has become the squatter’s “residence”).

This means that often a property owner’s only option is to obtain a County Court order for possession. If the trespassers do not leave once the possession order has been obtained, the property owner then has to wait for eviction to be carried out by a County Court Bailiff. Alternatively, it can apply to court to transfer the order for possession to the High Court for eviction by a High Court Enforcement Officer. A High Court Enforcement Officer is likely to be able to carry out the eviction much quicker than a County Court bailiff.

Whilst High Court Enforcement Officers have a high success rate of evicting squatters, getting an initial order for possession can be a slow and expensive process, often taking several weeks to get an initial court hearing, during which time substantial damage may be caused to the property.

In certain circumstances, property owners do have the option of applying to Court for an interim possession order. An interim possession order requires the squatters to leave the premises within 24 hours of being served with a copy of the order, or they will be guilty of a criminal offence. Once an interim possession order has been granted the property owner can also instruct police or private bailiffs to remove the squatters if they do not leave. This, in theory, gives the landlord immediate possession pending a further final possession hearing at court.

Whether an interim possession order is a faster route to regaining possession depends on how cooperative the squatters and the police are. Often the police are either unwilling or unable to assist. In those circumstances, the property owner then has to wait for the final possession order before it can instruct a High Court Enforcement Officer to evict the squatters.

Residential property 

Since 1 September 2012 it has been a criminal offence to trespass in a residential property. This means that a property owner can ask the Police to remove squatters from a residential building.

However, many Police often do not want to get involved and a residential property owner may still need to apply to court for an order for possession, using the same process used to apply for an order for possession of commercial property.

Prevention is better than cure

With the rise of commercial tenants who have gone into administration leaving an increasing number of vacant units, property owners should be extremely vigilant over the Christmas period to ensure that empty units and buildings are secured.

As re-gaining possession from squatters can be fraught with difficulties, landowners would be well advised to take steps to protect their properties now, including installing sufficient alarm systems, employing security guards, cutting off power supplies and/or removing anything valuable from the premises.

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