Legal Routes For Property Owners To Reclaim Their Properties From Squatters In The UK
Finding unknown occupants illegally occupying a vacant residential or commercial property can prove extremely stressful for owners. These squatters take possession without any legal rights, often damaging premises in the process. Navigating the complex laws surrounding squatting poses challenges when seeking to regain access. Understanding the legal definitions of squatting and available eviction routes provides essential knowledge. With the right approach, owners can take back control of commandeered properties.
Understanding Squatters and Squatting Lawfully
The term ‘squatter’ is used widely for any unauthorised occupant in a property. However, some distinction exists between trespassers committing civil offences and squatters partaking in criminal activity under the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders.
In brief, trespassers include those who may have originally had permission to enter a property but then refused to leave. Squatters are defined more specifically under section 144 of LASPOA as individuals knowingly entering property unlawfully, intending to occupy it. This criminalises squatting in residential buildings, with offenders facing arrest, fines and imprisonment.
However, squatting itself is not illegal in certain circumstances. For instance, short-term occupation of disused commercial premises for non-residential purposes can be lawful. Anti-squatting laws also do not apply to traveller sites. Understanding these nuances is key to pursuing effective evictions.
Seeking Early Assistance
Upon discovering unauthorised occupants, property owners should seek legal assistance promptly. Squatters can quickly cause damage while denying rightful access, so rapid action proves vital.
Initial steps include:
- Gathering evidence – Photograph any signs of break-ins and illegal occupation, both internally and externally. Documents squatter’s presence firmly.
- Changing locks – Act fast to prevent additional squatters from accessing the property while pursuing eviction.
- Securing the site – Check for safety hazards created by illegal occupants. Rectify imminent risks.
- Checking rights – Review the title register at the Land Registry to confirm legal ownership definitively.
- Visiting in person – Conduct visual inspections to assess property conditions and any occupants. However, never confront squatters directly as risks exist.
- Reporting crimes – Contact police with evidence of criminal damage, burglary and illegal trespassing. FIR reports support applications.
- Seeking legal advice – Approach property litigation solicitors to discuss optimal strategies for the specific circumstances.
Timely assistance prevents squatters from doing further harm. The relevant eviction process depends on the nature of the property occupied.
Reclaiming Residential Premises
For residential buildings, including houses, flats, apartments and houseboats, anti-squatting laws make regaining access relatively straightforward, albeit still requiring court processes.
With squatters meeting the section 144 LASPOA definition, and thus committing a criminal rather than civil offence, a faster Interim Possession Order (IPO) through the High Court proves the optimal route, rather than needing full court proceedings.
- Verifying ownership – Land Registry records confirm the applicant holds proprietary rights to the property. Detectives can investigate any ambiguity over rights.
- Filing the IPO application – This requires a witness statement evidencing unlawful occupation by non-tenants. Police and photographic records help demonstrate this.
- Serving papers – Once issued by a judge, orders get sent to the property, with copies fixed visibly to ensure squatters see them.
- Seeking warrants – If squatters ignore orders, court bailiffs will visit, inspect premises and formally require vacation of the property. Refusal leads to physical eviction.
- Engaging enforcers – County court bailiffs have the authority to enter, remove squatters by force if needed and ultimately regain possession for the owner. Police accompany them to prevent breaches of the peace.
Using IPO procedures can typically evict residential squatters within 1-2 months of filing a claim, markedly faster than regular possession proceedings.
Reclaiming Non-Residential Premises
For commercial properties like offices, warehouses, factories, shops and pubs, squatters hold no inherent criminal liability under LASPOA section 144. Occupying premises for non-residential purposes, even if trespassing, does not automatically constitute a criminal offence.
Therefore, regaining access requires civil processes to remove squatters classed as illegal trespassers rather than criminal offenders. This necessitates issuing claims through the County Court.
Key stages involve:
- Issuing a claim form – This required demonstrating rights to the property and unlawful occupation, using title deeds and extensive photographic evidence.
- Serving the claim – Court orders get served on squatters requiring them to either leave voluntarily or contest the case at a court hearing.
- Seeking court judgments – Non-compliance or challenges failing at hearings lead to judges issuing possession orders against the squatters.
- Applying for warrants – After possession orders, warrants of eviction get secured from the court.
- Instructing HCEOs – High court enforcement officers are authorised to enter premises and remove individuals based on warrant powers. Police attendance is requested to preempt trouble.
- Regaining possession – HCEOs finally enforce the warrant and restore vacant possession to the legal owner.
Albeit lengthy taking 2-6 months on average, correctly following required civil procedures ultimately provides legal means for owners to retake non-residential properties from squatters.
Protecting Property from Squatters
Prevention proves more effective than cure when combating squatting issues. Property owners can take proactive measures to avoid illegal occupations.
Key steps include:
- Monitoring empty premises – Conduct regular inspections of vacant homes or commercial units. Look for signs of break-ins.
- Ensuring robust security – Upgrade locks, doors, windows and alarm systems. CCTV also helps capture evidence of squatters.
- Making properties lived in – Maintaining a furnished appearance with post or vehicle parking deters squatters.
- Visibly displaying owner details – Clear signage indicates properties are actively managed.
- Blocking access points – Securing all vulnerable doors or windows prevents easy entry.
- Employing caretakers – Having a regular custodian presence onsite discourages squatters from targeting vacant premises.
- Obtaining prevention orders – These can prohibit named persons from occupying specific properties without permission. Breaches become criminal offences.
- Working with police – Report information on local squatting hotspots to request increased community policing around vulnerable properties.
Focused protection reduces opportunities squatters look to exploit. But remaining vigilant and responding rapidly if breaches occur still proves vital.
Managing Reputation Risks
Illegally occupied properties often lie vacant for extended periods, attracting criminal activity and antisocial behaviour. While resulting from squatters, negligence assertions against owners still arise. Proactively managing reputation proves prudent.
Steps to consider include:
- Informing insurers – Keep underwriters updated on properties identified as illegally occupied to avoid invalidating policies.
- Liaising with local authorities – Work positively with councils when addressing nuisance complaints to demonstrate engagement.
- Reaching out to neighbours – Notify nearby residents about the unauthorised occupancy and action being pursued to resolve the situation.
- Securing the site – Take reasonable steps to make the property safe and as visually respectable as circumstances allow.
- Clarifying publicly – Where unfair speculation arises, publish statements clarifying the property situation to provide context.
- Working with police – Agree measures observable by the community, like regular patrols, to deter criminality.
- Considering demolition – As a last resort, unsalvageable properties may need to be destroyed to remove inherent risks.
While squatters create the issues, demonstrating responsible conduct remains important for longer-term community relations once possession is regained.
Refurbishing Reclaimed Buildings
Lengthy squatting often leaves properties requiring extensive refurbishment work before becoming usable or marketable again. Owners face decisions on whether investment in repairs proves worthwhile.
Key considerations include:
- Structural condition – Structural surveys assess if critical issues make repairs unviable.
- Services and electrics – Faulty plumbing, electrics and gas supplies may need total replacement.
- Flooding risk – Water leaks causing mould may warrant new walls, plastering and damp proofing.
- Sanitisation – Disinfecting and waste removal addresses unsanitary conditions. Specialists assist with extreme cases like needle deposits.
- Security – Doors, windows, fencing and gates need enhanced security following break-ins.
- Market demand – Weigh if reviving derelict properties is commercially viable or demolishing and rebuilding is better.
- Budget – Comprehensive repairs may exceed potential property values in problematic areas.
- Own plans – Refurbishing for continued ownership or rental provides more incentive than just boosting the sale price.
- Professional support – Architects, structural engineers and project managers prove invaluable in extensive renovations.
Repairing squatter’s damage requires balancing investment and return. Where unviable, change-of-use applications or selling sites for development offer alternatives to refurbishing for continued occupation.
Deterring Repeat Targeting
Once squatters get evicted, properties risk attracting recurring occupations if not adequately secured. Robust pest control principles apply.
Key steps to prevent repeat targeting include:
- Making structural changes – Sealing up vulnerable access points prevents reuse by squatters.
- Stepping up security – Modern locks, CCTV and alarms enhance protection.
- Employing guardians – Having authorised residents deters squatters. Accredited guardian firms prove reliable.
- Activating monitoring – Remote camera and alarm monitoring enable rapid response to breaches.
- Restricting access – Gating roads, fueling vegetation and fencing tightens perimeter security.
- Collaborating with police – Community policing partnerships add surveillance to deter squatting.
- Utilising guard dogs – Trained security dogs provide visible onsite deterrence.
- Posting legal notices – Signage highlights surveillance measures and consequences of trespassing.
- Conducting regular checks – Monitoring vacant premises frequently flags issues early.
With robust measures in place, the risks and efforts required often steer repeat squatters towards easier targets.
The presence of squatters, individuals who illegally occupy properties without the owner’s consent, can indeed cause immense stress and disruption for property owners. It’s essential for property owners to have a clear understanding of “what are squatters” in legal terms and the processes available to reclaim both residential and commercial premises that have been taken over by squatters.
Prompt and efficient assistance, along with vigilant prevention measures, can significantly reduce the negative impacts of squatting. While it’s important to note that evictions of squatters can unavoidably be time-consuming and complex, they ultimately provide lawful methods for property owners to retake control of their commandeered properties. With a well-thought-out and strategic approach, the threat of squatting can be effectively managed, offering property owners the peace of mind and legal recourse they need in such situations.