Property Owner’s Guide To Managing Squatters’ Rights And Legal Protections In The UK

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Finding unknown individuals occupying a privately owned home or land can be an alarming experience for property owners. However, understanding legal contexts around squatting guides on rights, options and best practices when confronting squatters.

This guide explains the definition of squatting, potential rights squatters can claim, laws deterring squatting and procedures available to property owners seeking to repossess land or homes from unwanted occupancy.

With insight into legal protections balancing property owners’ entitlements and humanitarian responses, homeowners can address squatting from an informed position.

What are Squatters’ Rights?

In property law, squatting refers to occupying an empty residential building or undeveloped land without the legal owner’s permission. Squatters typically target vacant properties.

Squatters’ rights refer to potential legal entitlements squatters can assert allowing their temporary occupancy to be lawful. However, in England and Wales, laws around squatters’ rights are complex.

Some key principles include:

  • Occupying empty properties or disused land is usually trespass, a civil rather than criminal offence.
  • Squatters using force to enter properties commit criminal offences. But many simply find properties unlocked.
  • Once occupying land or buildings, squatters can claim ‘adverse possession’ rights after 10 years of continuous residency. But few achieve this longevity today.
  • Property owners require court orders to legally evict squatters once they are residing through civil proceedings.
  • Causing damage while gaining entry or occupying homes risks criminal charges. But simply occupying empty premises is rarely criminal by itself.

The concept of squatters’ rights is therefore contentious. While occupying land or property without consent is unlawful, certain pathways exist for squatters to gain legal rights over time. However, recent laws have curtailed squatters’ rights to discourage the practice.

Why Squatting Occurs

Squatting is predominantly driven by homelessness and housing affordability issues. With shelter hard to access, empty properties present irresistible shelter, however unlawfully obtained.

Reasons squatting arises include:

  • Lack of affordable housing – Squatting offers free accommodation, however precariously.
  • Homelessness – Rough sleepers will opportunistically occupy any building available for warmth and protection.
  • Housing waiting lists – Exceedingly long social housing queues lead people to seek any accommodation options in desperation.
  • Property guardians – Some professional ‘property guardians’ exploit grey areas and occupy empties under contractual pretexts.
  • Housing protests – Some squatting aims to highlight political issues around unused housing stock and second homes amidst homelessness.
  • Travellers – Encampments occupying land or stopping in buildings provide hard-to-evict mobile livelihoods.

While undesirable for property owners, squatting is often borne of housing adversity rather than criminality. However, UK laws have gradually removed rights and defences formerly used by squatters to disincentivise the practice.

Squatting Trends in the UK

Squatting rose significantly in England and Wales during the 1970s and 1980s in the context of urban decay and recession. However, since peak levels, squatting has declined appreciably following legal interventions.

Several factors explain falling squatting:

  • Reduced derelict buildings – Widespread urban regeneration and reduced disused industrial sites leave fewer venues vulnerable to squatting.
  • New criminal offences – Section 144 powers criminalising squatting in residential buildings were introduced in 2012.
  • Speedier evictions – Civil procedures have accelerated removing squatters from occupied properties and land.
  • Improved security – CCTV, alarms and private security all deter squatting.
  • Increased homelessness support – More shelters and outreach teams divert many at-risk people towards lawful temporary accommodation.

As viable empty properties have diminished and laws strengthened property owners’ rights, reported cases of squatters have materially decreased in recent decades. However, it remains an issue property owners should know how to lawfully address using appropriate procedures.

Adverse Possession and Squatters’ Rights

A historical concept occasionally cited regarding squatters’ rights is ‘adverse possession’. However, recent legal changes have constrained these arguments.

Adverse possession refers to entitlements gained through residing at a property or on land without the owner’s permission for an extended duration – typically at least 10 years. After this elapsed period, squatters could lodge ownership claims based on their long inhabitation and usage.

However, the Land Registration Act 2002 significantly limited this, requiring adverse possession claims to be actively lodged during the 10-year occupancy period to be valid. No automatic rights arise after 10 years without proactive registration during that time.

For squatters, meeting evidential criteria to demonstrate continuous 10-year residency is also extremely difficult today given their itinerant tendencies and short-term outlooks focused on temporary shelter rather than establishing lasting possession.

As such, the risks surrounding adverse possession claims from squatters have diminished substantially in recent decades. While previously providing potential defence, as a modern concept it rarely offers squatters viable legal protection anymore.

Deterring Squatting in Residential Buildings

To specifically deter squatting in residential buildings, the Government introduced criminal offences under Section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.

This made trespass in residential buildings with intent to reside there a criminal offence potentially punishable via fines, arrest or imprisonment.

It reinforced property owners’ rights and aimed to deter squatters from targeting vacant homes through criminalisation. Squatting itself was not banned outright and remains unlawful only as a civil offence.

However, Section 144 sends a prohibition message to deter squatters from encroaching on domestic home spaces specifically. It removed previous ambiguities that squatters sometimes tried to exploit to unlawfully occupy vacant residential properties.

Safeguarding Empty Dwellings

For owners of unoccupied homes, sensible precautions can be taken to prevent squatters:

  • Maintain appearances – Make properties seem lived in through neat upkeep.
  • Visible deterrents – Printed warning notices act as deterrents to would-be squatters.
  • Monitor regularly – Conducting frequent property inspections quickly identifies any issues.
  • Escape clauses – Including break clauses in tenancies where possible allows prompt repossession if tenants vacate.
  • Robust security – Install high-quality locks and intruder alarm systems.
  • Neighbour liaison – Seek vigilance from neighbours and request monitoring.
  • Professional services – Employ house-sitting services to physically occupy properties where viable.

While no guarantees completely, robust security provisions and neighbourhood cooperation help safeguard empty properties.

Dealing With Squatters Legally

If squatters do occupy a property, legal procedures exist to remove them:

Non-residential buildings:

  • Writ of possession – Obtaining this court order legally requires squatters to vacate. Failure risks potential contempt of court with bailiffs empowered to enforce. However, processes take several weeks at least.

Residential buildings:

  • Section 12 notice – Serving this initial written notice demands squatters leave within 24 hours or potentially face arrest for remaining illegally.
  • Court order – Seeking a possession order through the courts if defiance persists forces eventual eviction, typically within days or weeks by court bailiffs.
  • Indictable offence – If ignoring court orders, squatters can then be forcibly removed and face criminal charges.

Land:

  • Court injunctions or orders – These legally require squatters to vacate occupied land, enforceable via court powers.

While enforced evictions require court approval, police can arrest residential property squatters defying initial Section 12 notices to deter others from occupying homes unlawfully.

Approaching Resolutions Humanely

When seeking to resolve squatter situations, property owners should first confirm that occupants have no lawful entitlements to reside, avoiding confusion with tenants for example.

Provided squatter’s rights are absent, following official procedures is key. However, remaining humanely mindful of personal predicaments also aids constructive resolutions where possible.

Some considerations may include:

  • Seeking to initially understand any mitigating circumstances or vulnerabilities that may be driving squatting, like homelessness issues.
  • Signposting advice services like housing, welfare, addiction or mental health support where relevant needs exist.
  • Attempting respectful negotiations before ultimatums, allowing opportunities for agreed departures.
  • Considering the welfare impacts of any children involved when timing enforced evictions.

Balancing lawful entitlements against humanitarian factors allows legal processes to operate with compassion where feasible. Accessing support services can achieve lasting solutions, not just short-term evictions.

Preventing Land Traveller Encampments

In rural areas, vacant private land also risks encampments of travellers with vehicles and caravans setting up residences. While categorised differently legally, similar court procedures to remove trailer squatters exist.

Preventative tactics include:

  • Installing barriers – Gates, ditches and tree alignments physically obstruct access.
  • Signage – Highlighting land is private property with no public rights of way.
  • Security patrols – Monitoring for any trespassing and rapid reporting.
  • Working with councils – Seek guidance on routes to rapid eviction orders.
  • Local liaison – Agree with neighbours to report any suspicious activity.
  • Limit on-site appeal – Remove potential amenity sources like water taps.

Robust protective measures provide the strongest defence, preventing easy occupation by travellers. Quick reactions accelerate removals.

When Squatting is Lawful

Squatting does not automatically confer rights, but certain contexts can provide lawful justification including:

  • Temporary homeless shelters – Some community buildings intermittently offer emergency shelter.
  • Property guardians – When under contractual licence agreements to maintain property security in return for basic accommodation.
  • Warning order exclusions – Where a mortgage lender has taken possession but occupants refuse to vacate for agreed periods.
  • Sit-ins – Political protests occasionally involve unlawful building occupations to publicise causes.

These demonstrate grey areas exist. Even homelessness charities assisting rough sleepers through shelter schemes could be argued to breach squatting laws literally. However compassionate context is key. It differentiates necessity from exploitation.

Conclusion

What is squatters’ rights?” you might wonder. In summary, while often driven by adversity, squatting represents a precarious occupation lacking security or permanence for those undertaking it. For property owners, promptly addressing squatting relies on following lawful procedures balanced by humanity where possible.

By understanding contexts around both squatters’ motivations and the protections legally safeguarding land and building ownership, resolution processes operate more smoothly. Temporary shelters should transition towards lasting housing solutions. With professional guidance, owners can securely recover full possession while signposting any underlying issues fueling squatting. This dual approach allows difficult situations, often born of desperation, to be constructively concluded.

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