New crime of squatting
From 1 September 2012, a new criminal offence of squatting in a residential building was introduced.
The offence will be committed if a person:
- is in a residential building as a trespasser having entered it as a trespasser,
- knows or ought to know that he or she is a trespasser, and
- is living in the building or intends to live there for any period.
A person found guilty of the offence may be subject to imprisonment for up to 51 weeks or a fine of up to £5,000 (or both).
The new offence is designed to protect homeowners and is another powerful weapon against squatters. It could protect a large number of residential homeowners from incurring the expense of possession proceedings, although it is anticipated that in a number of cases, homeowners may choose to rely on the existing civil law to recover possession as this may be the quickest option.
The new offence does not apply to occupation of commercial premises, so it will be necessary for owners of commercial property to continue to rely on the existing civil remedies.
What can you do if squatters are occupying your property?
If you discover that squatters are in occupation of your residential property, and they refuse to leave, you can call the police and report it as a criminal offence. This protection is not, however, afforded to the owners of commercial property.
Squatters are afforded certain protections by the criminal law though and, under section 6 of the Criminal Law Act 1977, it is an offence for a property owner, without lawful authority, to use force or violence to recover possession of the property.
Although this offence does not apply to residential / intended residential occupiers, it will generally be necessary for a property owner to issue civil proceedings against the squatters, or to take advantage of the new criminal procedures, in order to recover possession of the property.
If a property owner does wish to rely on the civil law to recover possession, proceedings can be issued against the squatters in the County Court. Once the claim is issued, the Court will list it for an early hearing date.
A possession order will be made at the hearing unless the squatters defend the claim and prove to the Court that they have a legal interest in the land. The possession order will usually provide for immediate possession.
If the squatters fail to vacate the property, the County Court Bailiffs will enforce the possession order and evict the squatters. In more urgent matters it is, however, possible to transfer the proceedings to the High Court for enforcement by the High Court Sheriffs. Whilst this is a more costly approach, possession will typically be recovered much more quickly.
It should generally be possible to complete the whole process within two weeks.
Interim possession order
Alternatively, it is possible to apply for an Interim Possession Order against the squatters, subject to compliance with certain conditions. This is usually a quicker option that can take as little as a few days.
If the Court makes the order, the squatters must vacate the property within 24 hours of the order being served upon them and, if they fail to do so, they will be guilty of a criminal offence that is punishable by up to six months' imprisonment.
Practical steps to avoid squatters
Once you have recovered possession of the property it is important to ensure that the property is properly secured so as to prevent re-entry by the squatters, and so you should immediately arrange for a locksmith to attend the property to change the locks.
If you are concerned that your property may be vulnerable to squatters you may wish to consider other security options, such as screening for the doors and windows, security alarms and/or security guard presence.