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How to prevent and remove squatters

Written by: Alison Oates
Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs recently purchased the old Manchester Stock Exchange as they planned to redevelop it into a boutique hotel. Whilst waiting for the relevant permissions to come through and the works to start, squatters moved in.

The case highlights what is becoming an increasingly common problem for property owners, who need to leave their properties empty whilst development plans are produced and planning permissions obtained.

So, the question is what are the best ways to prevent squatters and if it’s too late to prevent them, what can be done about them?

If an owner knows they are going to have to leave a property vacant for a period, they would be well advised to employ security personnel to keep the building safe and the squatters out.

This can be an expensive option if the property is going to be vacant for some months, so some property owners are turning to ‘property guardians’, i.e. people willing to live in dilapidated properties for short periods and for low rents. This means the property is generating some income whilst vacant, albeit minimal, but more importantly is occupied, which will prevent squatters from moving in.

If squatters do gain access to a property they will be committing a trespass, which means they are occupying the property without the consent or agreement of the legal owner. The property owner therefore has legal rights to take back possession of the property.

The property owner has ‘common law’ rights to evict the squatters. To exercise these rights, the property owner needs to inform the squatters they have no right to be there and ask them to leave. If they fail to do so, the property owner is able to use reasonable force to remove the squatters.

If a property owner did wish to exercise these rights it would be advisable to instruct security officers to do this, especially in the case of more than two squatters, as the situation could be difficult to control. However, exercising these rights is fraught with difficulty, such as the squatters alleging more than reasonable force has been used and potential criminal consequences as a result.

Property owners often prefer to rely, therefore, on their formal legal rights and obtain an order for possession from the Courts. This method provides for more certainty and less risk, and is also a relatively straight forward process. A claim form for possession of the property based on trespass is issued at Court together with appropriate supporting evidence.

Once issued, it must be served on the squatters at least two days before the Court hearing to hear the case. If successful at the hearing, the Court will then grant an order for possession, which, after taking a few procedural steps, can be enforced by High Court Enforcement Officers, i.e. the bailiffs can be sent in who will evict the squatters and then secure the premises.

This process can be effected quickly in as little as five days, but this will be highly dependent on the efficiency of the Court where the claim has been issued.

In addition, in the case of residential property, the property owner may be able to engage with the police to ask them to evict the squatters. Since 1 September 2012, squatting in a residential building has been a criminal offence, punishable by a maximum prison term of up to six months, a maximum fine of £5,000, or both. However, it seems the police are often reluctant to exercise these powers and therefore property owners often have to rely on their civil law remedies.

Alison Oates is a solicitor in Ashfords LLP’s property litigation team.

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