13 February 2017

2017: The year of the squatter?

With two swift and successful squatters' evictions by our property litigation team in the first few weeks of January, as well as a recent high-profile judgment eviction of squatters from a £15m Belgravia property, 2017 is looking to be, not only the year of the rooster, but also the year of the squatter!

As force or the threat of force cannot be used to take back possession, often the only way to reclaim possession against squatters safely and lawfully is by court order. This can usually be obtained in a matter of weeks, or very much quicker, if certain circumstances apply.

The key is to understand what you are dealing with and how the courts are likely to approach your claim:

Act quickly

It sounds obvious but, if you are going to ask the court to expedite its processes, you should show the court that you are treating the matter with similar urgency from the moment you discover the squatters.

If the situation is acute, providing information and instructions to your lawyers promptly could enable them to get the court order in the morning and enforce it the same day or the following day. You can catch the squatters out as they may expect the procedure to take longer.

Even if there are no grounds to expedite the process, swift and decisive action will mean the slower processes start sooner.

Key information for your lawyer

It is vital that your lawyer knows as much information about the property and the squatters' occupation as possible. Key information includes:

  • What is the property?
  • Who owns the property?
  • How did they squatters get in?
  • What the squatters are doing? E.g. Are they fly-tipping? Have they damaged the property? Are they behaving threateningly?
  • Is there anything dangerous at the property or is the property in a condition that is dangerous/unsafe?
  • Are there any children or animals present?

This information will allow us to assess whether it is appropriate to issue the claim in the High Court or County Court and whether there are grounds to ask the court to shorten any of the timescales that usually apply.

Speed depends on circumstances

High Court proceedings are quicker but, if they are incorrectly issued there, this can delay matters and waste costs. Ordinarily, squatters’ proceedings should be issued in the county court; only exceptional circumstances merit issuing proceedings to the High Court. Such factors include:

  • complicated disputes of fact;
  • points of law of general importance; and/or
  • substantial risk of public disturbance or of serious harm to persons or property which require immediate determination.

Unfortunately, the value of your property and the amount of any financial claim, whilst relevant, are not material factors unless you can show that one or more of the criteria set out above apply.

If it is not possible to fulfil the requirements to issue in the High Court, the better and more certain course is to pursue the slower County Court route rather than wasting time pursuing a speculative action in the High Court.

In some circumstances, obtaining an Interim Possession Order ("IPO") might be an appropriate first step to take. If you are then successful in obtaining the IPO, it will be a criminal offence for squatters to stay in occupation of the property 24 hours after service of the court order but there is then a second hearing at a later date. IPOs can be very effective in certain circumstances but may ultimately be slower than the basic possession processes.

Please contact Anna Mullins or Ben Barrison for further information.

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