20 November 2017

Squatters- An unwelcome Christmas gift

The types of squatters we encounter generally fall into three camps: illegal ravers, protestors, and more destructive types who will strip the premises of anything of value and/or dump their waste and rubbish on the site (often contaminated, and often by the truckload).

Last year, particularly between Christmas and the end of January, we saw a dramatic upsurge in instructions to evict trespassers. This was partly due to illegal festive raves, and partly because squatters may see commercial premises as being particularly vulnerable during the Christmas period.  

Anti-squatting measures

Landowners wanting to avoid returning from their Christmas breaks to find the unwelcome gift of uninvited guests may wish to deploy a range of preventative measures, such as:

  1. Installing reinforced security doors and tamper proof locks to doors/windows/skylights;
  2. Ensuring that there are sufficient alarm systems, CCTV, and associated signage;
  3. Employing 24/7 security guards to remain on site or, at the very least, regularly inspect the premises so that legal action can be taken as soon as possible, if necessary;
  4. Removing anything valuable from the premises;
  5. Ensuring that the insurance policies for the premises are sufficient to not only cover the immediate damage/loss, but also legal fees, loss of rent, and any other consequential loss;
  6. Making any empty premises uninviting by disconnecting the water, heating, electric, gas, etc.

In recent years squatters' preferences have been for unoccupied premises, or those undergoing redevelopment. Whilst it may seem counter-intuitive to outlay cost in securing premises which are about to undergo redevelopment, doing so can avoid delays associated with taking back possession from squatters.

What to do if you become the victim of squatters

Whilst the matter should be reported to the police, they will often not take action to remove squatters because the squatters assert rights to occupy which means the matter becomes a question of civil rather than criminal law unless the police witness criminal offences being committed.

Accordingly, a possession order from the court will be required before a landowner is able to legally use force to remove squatters from the premises. The timescale for obtaining the possession order will depend on which court process the landowner is able to use.

If the landowner can show sufficient grounds to justify the court considering the matter on an urgent basis (e.g. a risk being posed to members of the public; a nearby residential or vulnerable population; fly-tipping/pollution; unlawful activities; threats of violence against people and/or damage to property), the landowner can use the expedited High Court process. Using this process, squatters can, in extreme cases, be evicted within 24 hours. In our experience, a more likely timescale is between 2 to 4 days as often eviction logistics need to be considered, or the situation is "urgent" but not "extremely urgent" in the eyes of the Court.

If the landowner cannot justify using the expedited High Court process, then the County Court process will need to be used, which will usually be slower. Whilst the length of time to obtain a possession order will be dictated by the workload of the presiding County Court, our experience is that possession can usually be regained within 1 to 4 weeks.

Depending on the circumstances, landowners can also seek interim possession orders against squatters. These involve additional procedural steps and documentation but provide for immediate possession pending a further hearing by the court. As such, a final determination may take longer. Ultimately, which process is best much depends on the circumstances.

Dean is an Associate in our Property Litigation team.

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