Unsettled Settlements: Navigating Squatter Rights In The UK Property Landscape
Squatting, or the act of occupying a residential building without the owner’s permission, has a complex history in the UK. While largely illegal today, certain squatter rights persisted into the modern era, creating confusion around property ownership and eviction laws. This article will examine the evolution of squatter rights in the UK, the current legal situation, and tips for property owners navigating this unsettled landscape. With proper understanding, both property owners and squatters can ensure their rights are protected.
A Brief History of Squatting in the UK
Squatting has existed in the UK since the Middle Ages, with peasants occupying vacant common lands or building makeshift houses on wastelands. The Industrial Revolution saw mass migration to cities, leading to enormous squatter settlements. With the increase in homelessness after WWII, squatting in vacant properties became more common.
Certain squatter rights solidified in law over the centuries. For instance, under the concept of adverse possession, squatters could claim legal ownership if they occupied a property openly for 10 or 12 years. The Forcible Entry Act 1381 also made it illegal for owners to evict squatters themselves, requiring a court order.
The 1970s saw a resurgence of squatting in London, with new laws restricting evictions and licenced squats created in empty council properties. However, by the 1980s, public opinion had turned against squatters, culminating in the criminalisation of squatting in residential buildings under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.
Current Legal Situation for Squatters
Today, squatting in residential buildings in England and Wales is illegal, carrying a maximum penalty of six months in prison, a £5000 fine, or both. Exceptions apply for certain emergency cases, such as homeless people seeking shelter. Commercial squatting is still not a criminal offence.
To gain possession of their property and evict squatters, owners must follow a legal process, starting with an Interim Possession Order from the County Court. This can be obtained quickly, after which the police can evict squatters. However, if squatters have been living in the property for a long time, they can attempt to claim ‘squatter’s rights’ to legally contest the eviction.
How Squatters May Attempt to Claim Possession
Though residential squatting is now illegal, squatters can still try to claim possession through two main legal avenues:
Adverse Possession This law allows non-owners to claim ownership if they have openly and exclusively occupied property for 10 years (or 12 years in some cases). Squatters may claim the time they were squatting should count towards this. However, the law was revised in 2002 to require adverse possession claims to be made through the courts and land registry first, making it harder to establish.
Registered Title Application After 10 years of occupying a property, squatters can apply to become the registered owner via the land registry, seeking to claim legal ownership. As with adverse possession, the process is now more complex, but it remains a potential avenue. Property owners must be vigilant in opposing any such applications.
How Property Owners Can Protect Their Rights
As squatting itself is now illegal, property owners have strong powers to evict squatters through the courts. However, they must still act to prevent squatters from gaining rights over time. Key tips include:
- Visit the property regularly to detect any squatters early. Seek an Interim Possession Order quickly before they can claim ‘rights’.
- Oppose any attempt by squatters to register title or claim adverse possession. Seek legal advice immediately.
- Ensure the property is secured when not occupied. Install alarms and deterrents.
- Display warning notices making it clear the property is owned, observed and under legal proceedings.
- Collect evidence of unlawful occupation in case legal proceedings are needed.
- Seek help from the police, estate agents and lawyers experienced in handling squatter evictions.
Squatting has a complex history in the UK, with certain squatter rights persisting into modern times. However, the law now firmly favours property owners in reclaiming possession. By acting decisively when squatters occupy a property and opposing any subsequent ownership claims vigorously, owners can protect their legal rights. With proper support, the risks and uncertainties around squatter evictions can be reduced. Unsettled settlements may still arise, but property owners have strong recourse in law.