UK Property Law: The Thin Line Between Squatters And Adverse Possession

Garden area in House

Returning from vacation to find strangers occupying your home is any owner’s nightmare. Yet squatting situations, while rare, do occur. And some squatters try to claim ownership under adverse possession laws. Where is the line between outright criminality versus this contentious method of legally acquiring title? Understanding nuances in property law helps owners avoid loss of assets.

Defining Squatters in the UK Context

Broadly, a squatter is someone occupying a residential property without the legal right to be there or permission from the owner. This covers a wide spectrum:

  • People seeking temporary shelter in empty homes.
  • Activists make political statements by taking over vacant buildings.
  • Opportunists who identify targets just to get free accommodation.
  • Groups who intentionally try to steal ownership via adverse possession.

The motivations are diverse. But any non-consensual occupation falls under the banner of squatting.

Common Squatter Scenarios

Squatters exploit various property situations:

  • Second homes or holiday lets are left vacant for long periods.
  • Rental units undergoing renovation between tenancies.
  • New-builds partway through construction.
  • Foreclosed homes awaiting sale.
  • Probate properties awaiting transfers.
  • Inherited homes unoccupied after a death.
  • Commercial buildings are vacant pending demolition or redevelopment.

Wherever there is no active occupation or oversight, squatters see an opportunity.

Squatting Trends in the UK

Squatting is difficult to track precisely but tends to rise at times of economic hardship and housing shortages. Factors impacting rates include

  • Overall levels of homelessness and persons in insecure housing.
  • Supply of affordable housing, especially in cities like London.
  • Tolerance and public sentiment towards squatters.
  • Enforcement of laws prohibiting unauthorised occupation.
  • Activities of organised squatter collectives who target campaigns.
  • Several vacant buildings awaiting redevelopment.

Squatting ebbs and flows based on these drivers. But a sense of entitlement around empty homes persists with some.

Common Squatter Behaviors

Typical squatter actions make their presence obvious:

  • Break basic entry by forcing locks or windows.
  • Occupy property and move personal items in.
  • Change locks to control access.
  • Connect utilities like electricity.
  • Ignore posted warning notices.
  • Assert nonexistent tenancy rights if discovered.
  • Refuse to leave when formally evicted.
  • Cause damage either intentionally or through neglect.

Documenting evidence of such behaviours strengthens the case for swift removal.

Squatter ‘Rights’ in the UK – Myths and Reality

Many false myths about squatter rights persist. The actual legal position:

Myth: Squatters have automatic rights to stay once occupying

Reality: Absolutely no legal rights are gained through squatting alone.

Myth: Squatters become tenants after residing within a set time

Reality: Unauthorised occupation does not create a tenancy, no matter how long stays.

Myth: It takes ages to legally remove squatters

Reality: Police have powers for quick evictions where squatting meets the criminal definition.

Myth: Squatters are within rights to claim possession

Reality: Adverse possession requires meeting strict criteria over many years.

In nearly all cases, squatters have no legal basis for occupation or ownership claims.

How UK Laws Treat Squatting

After high-profile squatting cases, UK law takes harsh stances:

  • Criminal offence since 2012 – Squatting in residential buildings carries jail for up to 6 months.
  • Immediate eviction powers – Police can quickly remove squatters rather than await court orders.
  • Illegal sub-letting – Squatters cannot legitimise occupation by collecting rent.
  • Quicker repossession – When squatters do try legal routes, cases are expedited.
  • Ignorance no defence – Claiming unaware a home was occupied is not accepted.

The combination of criminal sanctions and streamlined evictions deters would-be squatters.

How To Legally Remove Squatters

Dealing with squatters illegally occupying your property can be a stressful and challenging situation. To regain possession of your property while staying within the boundaries of the law, it’s essential to follow a series of formal steps. In this guide, we’ll provide detailed insights into the process of legally removing squatters.

Gather Evidence

The first step in removing squatters is to gather concrete evidence to establish their unauthorised entry and occupation. This evidence is crucial in proving your case in court. Collect photographs and any other relevant documentation that can demonstrate the squatters’ presence on your property without your permission.

Formally Demand Squatters to Leave

Once you have gathered sufficient evidence, you should send a formal written notice to the squatters, demanding that they vacate your property immediately. In this notice, specify the legal reasons for their eviction, such as trespassing and unauthorised occupation. It is essential to keep copies of all correspondence for future reference.

Initiate Accelerated Repossession Proceedings

If the squatters do not comply with your demand and refuse to leave, the next step is to initiate legal proceedings. You will need to apply to the court for accelerated possession of your property. This process will involve submitting relevant documents and evidence, and you may want to seek legal counsel to ensure your case is properly presented.

Seek Interim Possession Orders

In some cases, court proceedings can be time-consuming, leading to delays in the eviction process. To expedite the removal of squatters, you can request interim possession orders. These orders allow you to regain possession of your property before a full court hearing, particularly if you can demonstrate the urgency of the situation.

Request Police Assistance

Once you have obtained court orders for the eviction, it is advisable to seek the assistance of law enforcement, typically the local police, to ensure a safe and lawful eviction process. Provide them with copies of the court orders and any other relevant documentation. The police will help ensure that the squatters leave your property peacefully.

Change Locks

After the squatters have been legally removed from your property, it is essential to change the locks immediately to prevent re-entry. This step helps safeguard your property from further unauthorised access.

Legally removing squatters from your property requires a methodical approach and adherence to legal procedures. It is crucial to gather evidence, follow proper legal channels, and obtain court orders to ensure a lawful eviction. Seeking legal advice and working with law enforcement can help facilitate a smooth and secure eviction process. Once the squatters are removed, take precautions to protect your property from future intrusion, such as changing locks and securing the premises.

With proper procedures and evidence gathering, most squatter situations can be resolved quickly. But prevention is always preferable.

Protecting Property To Deter Squatting

Simple deterrents greatly reduce squatting risks:

  • Fit secure locks on all entry points – consider anti-bump and pick models.
  • Install alarm systems – monitored systems provide alerts of breaches.
  • Ensure someone regularly checks on vacant homes.
  • Avoid discussing vacation plans publicly – social media posts provide intelligence.
  • Ask neighbours to collect mail and generally keep oversight.
  • Make the home seem occupied via timers on lights etc.
  • Explicitly warn against trespassing via posted signage.

Remaining vigilant is key to protecting vacant properties against opportunistic squatters.

Adverse Possession in the UK

If squatters do try to make legal ownership claims, they may cite “adverse possession”. Under limited circumstances, continuously occupying land without the owner’s permission for many years can confer legal title.

But adverse possession involves more than just squatting. Key aspects:

  • The occupation must be open and undisguised, not covert.
  • The occupier acts as if they own the land over a long duration.
  • The occupier does not have to pay rent but must maintain the property.
  • The owner has knowingly permitted this without objection.

Adverse possession relies on oversight or acquiescence by the actual property owner, not just unauthorised occupation.

Requirements to Claim Adverse Possession

For adverse possession to be legally valid in England and Wales, stringent requirements apply under the Limitation Act 1980:

  • Occupation must be “adverse” to the interests of the true owner.
  • Possession must be exclusive to the occupier and uninterrupted.
  • Possession has continued for at least 10 years.
  • The occupier must have intended to possess the property throughout the duration.
  • The owner has taken no actions to evict or interrupt the occupation over the decade.

The extended timeframes and evidenced intention aim to filter out speculative squatters making opportunistic ownership claims.

Why Adverse Possession Exists

This contentious concept arises from policies originally aimed at:

  • Avoiding ownership uncertainties when historic records were limited.
  • Incentivising occupiers to maintain and improve neglected, abandoned land.
  • Penalising owners who willfully ignored the occupation of their properties for many years.
  • Allowing occupiers who made innocent mistakes about boundaries to gain title to lands they maintained.

In essence, it transfers land from those demonstrated to have little interest in it to those actively possessing and using it. But the bar is extremely high.

Claiming Adverse Possession in Practice

While adverse possession exists in theory, succeeding with a claim in practice is rare:

  • Extensive evidence must prove continuous occupation and use.
  • Courts favour the interests of legal owners, not opportunistic squatters.
  • Compensation may be ordered if the rights of others are impacted.
  • Claims take years to hear during which eviction can occur.
  • Prospective buyers are often deterred by potential ownership disputes.

Given the prolonged timescales and extensive evidence required, most squatters have little realistic prospect of securing possession rights.

Strategy if an Adverse Possession Claim Emerges

If you receive a legal claim seeking ownership by adverse possession:

  • Seek strong legal counsel with property expertise immediately.
  • Gather all records demonstrating your ownership and interest in protecting your rights.
  • Provide evidence of any past actions you took around the land and occupiers.
  • Apply for a vesting order to conclusively establish your title.
  • Explore technicalities around occupation continuity, exclusivity and your objections.
  • Seek immediate injunctive relief if still occupied, before the case concludes.

Time and evidence are on the side of the legitimate owner, rather than opportunistic squatters.

Removing Boundary Confusion Risks

Many adverse possession claims arise from innocent misunderstandings over physical boundaries. Strategies to avoid this include:

  • Have a professional land survey done to definitively map boundaries.
  • If any ambiguities are found, formally agree on boundaries with neighbours via written declarations.
  • If areas are being used by neighbours, establish permanent permissions via easements.
  • Ensure boundary hedges and fences do not stray over time via periodic reviews.
  • Record and address any encroaching structures like garages immediately.
  • Monitor land registry records for attempts to register possessory titles.

Remaining vigilant over boundaries removes opportunities for adverse possession claims down the line.

Key Takeaways on Squatters vs Adverse Possession

  • Mere occupation by squatters creates no legal rights whatsoever.
  • Rapid eviction powers deter squatting in most cases.
  • Adverse possession requires open occupation and owner inaction over 10+ years.
  • Prevent squatting via security precautions like alarms on vacant homes.
  • Gather evidence at first signs of unauthorised occupation.
  • Seek immediate court orders and police assistance for removals.
  • Consult lawyers to address any ownership claims robustly and swiftly.

With proper protections and responses, owners can defeat opportunistic squatting attempts and claims under adverse possession laws.

Conclusion

Squatting involves occupying property without the consent of the owner, whereas adverse possession requires long, uninterrupted occupation with the owner’s acquiescence. Squatters in the UK today have limited scope for legal ownership claims, with most acts now criminal offences. Still, owners must remain vigilant around unoccupied homes. Securing properties physically and monitoring for incursions is key. Rapid legal and police assistance should then remove squatters swiftly. The extensive proof and timescales required mean adverse possession claims rarely succeed on residential properties. However it is vital owners assert their rights vigorously when needed. With proper precautions and prompt responses, properties remain protected.

We are proud members of...

  • NAPB
  • RICS
  • The Property Ombudsman
  • Trading Standards

We are proud to be the most regulated property buyer operating in the ‘Quick House Sale’ industry. We are an active member of the NAPB (National Association Of Property Buyers) and are RICS regulated, which means you can have every confidence of selling your home with us quickly & easily.