What is squatting?
Squatting is a term used where someone enters and stays in a building or land without consent. Squatters are also known and called trespassers.
Squatting in residential properties in the UK is illegal and a squatter can be arrested. Under current legislation, if a squatter is found guilty, they can be sent to prison, fined or both.
Squatters can also be charged if they damage the property, for example, breaking a window or a door to get in.
This only applies in England, and Wales – Long term squatters can eventually become the registered owner of a property if the squatters have occupied it continuously for 10 or 12 years if the property is unregistered at HMLR
Squatters are required to prove that they acted as owners of the property throughout this period and further: that they did not have the owner’s consent to do so.
If a squatter applies for adverse possession of a registered property, HMLR will inform the legal current owner, who then has 65 days to object to the application.
So make sure the address on HM Land Registry “office copy” of a property you own is an address you could receive any correspondence. According to the HMLR property fraud has gone up more than 3 fold in recent years.
We seldomly forget to change our utility bills over when we move, however, most property owners are oblivious to the risk of not changing their address with the HMLR to reflect an up to date address on the office copy!
A valid objection will result in the rejection of the squatter’s application. However, eviction proceedings must commence to remove squatters and repossess the property. Not to do so will cause problems later.
Circumstances a squatter can be arrested for squatting
Squatters can be arrested for squatting if they are living in a property, or intend to live there, and:
- they did not get the owner’s permission to live in or on the landlord or building
- They entered the property without permission
- They should have known that they are trespassing
Squatters can be arrested for squatting in any residential building that was designed as a dwelling to live before they moved in. This can be like houses and flats and includes temporary or moveable building structure, like mobile homes or caravans.
When can a squatter not be arrested?
Squatters cannot be arrested if they first entered the building or land with the owner’s permission, this could be like someone who is a tenant or a licensee.
They cannot be arrested if their tenancy or licence fixed term has ended., or they have not yet moved out, or you are in rent arrears. Cases like this the landlord must serve a notice and, in most cases, go to court to evict and repossess the property through the court procedure.
Squatters in a commercial property
Those who own residential property are in a much better legal position regarding squatters, as the police can arrest and prosecute a squatter.
If a squatter wants to avoid doing anything illegal, then they should be aware that they should squat in commercial properties.
Usually, squatters are very well organised, knowledgeable about their rights and run an efficient method for occupying commercial premises.
For commercial property owners, leaseholders they have noticed an increase in recent years the number of squatters breaking into commercial properties.
The criminal offence of squatting by section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 is controversial legislation in that it still only applies to residential property.
That increase of squatters in commercial properties has led to calls for the legislation to apply to cover commercial property too.
Adverse possession and Squatters
Another term that can be used is ‘adverse possession’ for squatters or trespassers.
The right to apply through HMLR for legal ownership of the subject property through a process known as ‘adverse possession.’
If the squatters can show positive evidence of continual occupation and improvements to the property over 10 years. The 12-year rule applies if the property is not registered with HMLR), then the right for adverse possession can be used.
What the police can do about squatters
The police have the power to enter and search a dwelling to arrest someone they suspect of squatting if it is a residential property.
The offence carries a maximum penalty of six months in prison, a £5,000 fine or both.
If your home or a neighbour’s home has been taken over by squatters
If you have squatters in your home, you should call the police.
If you think someone is squatting in your neighbour’s or friends’ home and you know they have not asked anyone to stay there, you should consider calling the police.
If you are a squatter and have nowhere to live, the local council may be able to assist you in finding somewhere to stay.
What rights do squatters currently have?
Since 1977, it has been unlawful to threaten or use violence against the owner or legal occupier to enter a property where someone is present and opposes the entry.
This legislation was introduced to prevent landlords from using violence to evict their tenants. This 1977 Act is what is commonly known as “squatter’s rights”.
What penalties do residential squatters face?
The offence of squatting in England & Wales of a residential dwelling carries a maximum penalty of six months’ imprisonment, and or fine of up to £5,000.
Can squatters be evicted?
Yes, they can. The owner or a leaseholder can seek an interim possession order (IPO), or they can go for possession. It is important to decide if you want to go directly for a possession order or an interim possession order.
It usually is better to go for a possession order rather than an interim possession order. You will need to consider the pros and cons of the two options, seek legal advice on these options.
How can you prevent squatters from occupying commercial premises?
The best way to prevent squatters taking over your property is to:
keeping your property secure all the time
Carry out reference checks when letting the property, this may prevent the property from being occupied by tenants who may abandon it, which will increase the risk of squatters
Squatting in non-residential properties
Non-residential property (commercial property) is deemed as any building or land that is not designed to be lived in.
When it comes to commercial property, the police can act if squatters commit other crimes when entering or staying in a property.
Crimes may include:
- causing damage to the property when entering
- causing damage while in the property
- not leaving when a possession order/ bailiff writ has been issued
- stealing from the property
- using utilities like electricity or gas without permission
- if you see someone breaking into or damaging property.
Please note: COVID-19 is likely to have impacted the response time from HM Land registry and (HMCTS) HM Court and tribunal service. However, trespass cases and the court process has not been adversely affected.
Source: British Landlords Association
Author: Sarah Featherstone
Date: 4th of November 2002
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