Worried about squatters – the law is on your side

/ Blocks of flats, Freeholders, Landlords, Leaseholders

Squatting in residential buildings (like a house or flat) is a criminal offence and should not give you too big a headache as a property owner. For the offender, it can lead to 6 months in prison, a £5,000 fine, or both, and the eviction process is relatively simple these days.

 

Guest Blog by Neil Andrews*

Gone are the old days when squatters seemed to have had the justice system on the run and caused home owners untold misery in eviction, repair and clean-up costs.  Yet, even though new legislation came into force on 1 September 2012, making squatting in a residential building a criminal offence, the very mention of the word squatter can send shivers down a home owner’s spine.

The new offence was introduced by Section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, following public concern about the harm that trespassers can cause. It is designed to protect landlords, second homeowners and local authorities who discover trespassers living in residential buildings that they own or control, even if no one was living there at the time the trespassers occupied the building.

Now the police are able to use powers under section 17 of PACE (the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984) to raid a building on suspicion that it is being occupied by squatters and then eject or arrest them.

Some squatters believe they have a perfect right to occupy when properties are left vacant, especially for long periods. However, if they have no ownership documents, no lease or tenancy agreement, no record of having paid rent to a landlord, and no other evidence of occupancy rights, then they can be removed by the police.

Do not confuse squatters with rogue tenants! To be clear, squatting is when

  • A person knowingly enters a residential (or commercial) property as a trespasser;
  • He or she knows they are trespassing;
  • He or she is living in the building or intends to live there for some time.

A tenant who enters a property with the permission of the landlord, but who falls into arrears with rent payments, will not be a squatter, nor will a tenant holding over after the end of a lease or license (even if the person leaves and re-enters the building).

So, if you find squatters in your flat don’t panic. Call the police to report a criminal offence. The law is with you now. 

Be sure to notify your managing agents or freeholder as soon as you are aware that trespassers have gained means of access to the building. It will almost certainly be necessary to change all the locks, keys and codes for common areas and, of course, the building’s insurers should be informed.

An interesting footnote:  Squatting in a commercial property is still a concern for commercial landlords and property owners.  Generally, law firms recommend the following actions should be taken in respect of vacant property:

  • Ensure the premises are properly secured and if necessary boarded up
  • Inspect the property internally and externally
  • Remove items of value
  • Turn off electricity, gas and water supplies
  • Arrange for CCTV or 24 hour security.

To reduce the risk, owners have created a new ‘profession’ of property guardianship.  The property guardian’s duties are defined by the agreement between the property guardian and property owner.

* Neil Andrews is a Partner at Coles Miller LLP. For more information about property matters you can contact Neil on T: 01202 355695 E: nandrews@coles-miller.co.uk

The sole purpose of this article is to provide guidance on the issues covered. This article is not intended to give legal advice, and, accordingly, it should not be relied upon. It should not be regarded as a comprehensive statement of the law and/or market practice in this area. In preparing this article, we have relied on information sourced from third parties and we make no claims as to the completeness or accuracy of the information contained. You should not act upon (or should refrain from acting upon) information in this publication without first seeking specific legal and/or specialist advice. Arthur J. Gallagher Insurance Brokers Limited trading as Deacon accepts no liability for any inaccuracy, omission or mistake in this publication, nor will we be responsible for any loss which may be suffered as a result of any person relying on the information contained herein.

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