If you have a vacant property, then you’ll be aware of the risk from squatters – those uninvited occupants who assume possession of the property without permission.
All types of vacant property are at risk from forced entry and illegal trespass with the intent to occupy, although doing this in residential properties in England and Wales became illegal in 2012 and is punishable by law, as reported by the BBC at the time.
However, although the new laws made it quicker and easier to regain possession of a residential property using the support of the police and the legal system, the result is that incidences of squatting in commercial premises is now on the rise, as commercial properties are not covered by the same law.
Since 1977, when the criminal court introduced Section 6 of the Criminal Law Act to support tenants against threats and violence commonly associated with illegal evictions by rogue landlords, the term “squatters rights” has been used to protect occupants who oppose entry to the property they are occupying. Squatters frequently cited their “squatters’ rights” by placing posters on entry points, to remind the property owners that it would be illegal for them to forcibly take back the property.
Now though, because acts of trespass and squatting in residential property are illegal, squatters there can no longer invoke squatters’ rights, as it’s the property owner who now actually has the right to gain access, so long as they follow the law to do so.
It’s because the law doesn’t yet extend to commercial properties that squatters can still invoke “squatters’ rights” when occupying commercial properties and, as regaining commercial property possession remains a civil (rather than law court) issue, it can take significantly more time and money to legally remove squatters from a commercial property.
In all cases, it’s useful to remember that a tenant who refuses to leave a property is not a squatter by definition, as they initially took possession under agreement, not by trespass. Further information covering adverse possession and the rights of the property owner can be found within the SafeSite Security Solutions knowledge base.
As mentioned, the law is now firmly on the side of owners when it comes to removing squatters from residential properties. However, the law does need to be adhered to as it remains illegal for owners to use threats and violence or to force entry, for example by breaking in themselves.
Options for keeping on the right side of the law, whilst using the law to regain the property include:
● Peaceful re-entry
When squatters exit the property for any reason, perhaps to go out for provisions, it may be possible to gain entry without breaking in and re-secure the property, such as by changing the locks and securing access points. Unfortunately though, because most squatters understand this as a possibility, it’s rare for them to leave a property unattended.
The key word in this option is peaceful, as because threats, violence and force from property owners are illegal, even well-behaved property owners can fall victim to false accusations when attempting a peaceful re-entry. For this reason, it’s always useful to have witnesses with you when visiting the property and even better if you can organise police support …
● Police action
Although a residential property owner has the legal right to regain their access and possession of their property, the law dictates that only the police have actual legal permission to force entry.
Although achieving this involves following a legal process, working in conjunction with the police and the law courts offers property owners not only a good chance of legally removing squatters, but also of ensuring that squatters are fully prosecuted for all of their criminal actions, such as criminal damage, theft of possessions or utilities and breaching the peace or other legal or civil order.
● Interim Possession Order
The quickest route to legally evict squatters is an Interim Possession Order (IPO). If, on visiting the property, you become aware of a squatter situation, you can apply to the court within 28 days for an interim possession order, through a two stage process:
○ Owners offers evidence of their entitlement to be in the property, plus proof that the squatters are trespassing. Owners are also asked to give assurances to the court about later action, depending on the outcome of the application.
○ The application is considered within 5 working days and, if successful, the owner is permitted to serve court papers, including the IPO to the occupants. This has to be done within 48 hours and must be served correctly (such as by posting onto the front door, if the occupants will not answer the door). The IPO gives the squatters 24 hours to vacate the property, otherwise they may be arrested. In most instances, this is enough to encourage the squatters to vacate the property.
● Summary Possession Order
Once an IPO has been ordered, a second court hearing also takes place, allowing the occupants the chance to offer evidence of their right of occupation. In reality, squatters rarely attend, so if the IPO is upheld then a Summary Possession Order (SPO) is granted.
SPO action is also the legal route for property owners who did not apply for an IPO, for instance if they were aware of the squatters for more than 28 days or did not agree to give the assurances required for the IPO.
Overall, an SPO can be a cheaper process in relation to court and legal fees, but it’s also a significantly longer process. As squatters remain in the property until the order is awarded, there’s the risk of additional costs in damage to or theft from the property during this period of time.
Whether a private property is commercial or residential, the threat of squatters can be greatly reduced through having adequate security in place as soon as the property becomes vacant – even if the vacancy is only temporary. As an additional precaution, once possession has been regained following the legal eviction of squatters, locks should be changed, access points secured and court actions followed up appropriately. Learn more about squatter prevention in SafeSite Security Solution’s squatter deterrence and prevention guide.