Squatting in Pall Mall? Not on our watch!
Picture the scene: the Easter weekend and all is quiet in Central London. A substantial office block sits empty in Pall Mall pending redevelopment. In the early hours of the morning, a gang of 20 or so squatters force entry and make themselves at home. A large banner is displayed across the front of the building. Despite onsite security, the incident is not reported to the freeholder, Forsters' client, until Tuesday morning. Still in relaxed mode after the weekend and munching on the remains of a half eaten Easter egg, Ros Cullis of the Property Litigation Team receives an agitated call requesting urgent advice as to the best way to get the squatters out as quickly as possible. Suddenly, the excesses of the weekend are forgotten and it's down to business.
Whilst it is tempting for property owners whose properties have been invaded in this way to 'send in the boys' to recover what is rightfully theirs, they will be breaking the law if they use more than 'reasonable force' to do so. This means that you cannot break back in to the property but only re-gain entry at an opportune moment, if a door or window is left open. Also, this is not necessarily the best approach for large numbers of squatters and bailiffs are generally reluctant to proceed in this way. Initially, therefore, we advise that the best way to proceed is to issue proceedings in the County Court to obtain an Interim Possession Order (IPO). Although the property is worth £42 million and is in a prestigious location, just a stone's throw from Prince Charles' pad, this is not in itself sufficient to warrant issuing proceedings in the High Court. The Court rules are such that this can only be done in exceptional circumstances.
An IPO is granted pending a hearing for a final possession order. The advantage of an IPO is that the hearing of the claim is listed quickly. Also, the squatters have to vacate the premises within 24 hours of being served with the IPO, failing which they are deemed to be committing a criminal offence and at risk of arrest. By this point, they have usually found alternative premises and the final hearing becomes a formality as the squatters are not interested in challenging the claim for possession.
On Wednesday, the proceedings are prepared, ready to be rushed to Central London County Court for issue. Security is placed on site to prevent anyone else from entering the property. However, just as the paralegal has her coat on ready to leave, the client reports further developments from the Pall Mall squat. It transpires that the squatters are in fact part of a high profile group called "Occupy London" (and had just been successfully evicted from Admiralty Arch) and have been encouraging demonstrations at the property via social media.
The weekend is approaching, and glorious sunshine is forecast. In addition to any possible demonstrations, the prospect of an all night/48 hour rave suddenly becomes a very real risk. We all love a party but, clearly, this one had to be stopped in its tracks. Forsters advise that the circumstances warrant issuing proceedings in the High Court and suggest that we try to have the claim heard before the weekend.
After a quick re-draft of the proceedings, Ros attends the High Court in person on Friday to press for the early hearing date. However, the next challenge is a High Court Master who is less than willing to agree either that the proceedings should have been commenced in the High Court (and is close to throwing them out) or that we should be given an early hearing date. Ros uses her considerable powers of persuasion, and after a clear warning that the High Court should not be used for such cases unless there is a real risk of damage to the property, the Master lets the case proceed and, although he will not allow a hearing before the weekend, does list the case on the following Tuesday, earlier than would otherwise be the case. Cue cheers from the client and back slapping all round, however, the celebrations proved to be premature…
To be continued…