Open-access content 17th May 2011
A change to the law in 2012 will make squatting a criminal rather than a civil offence in the UK. Mark Cosh explains the implications for facilities managers.
19 May 2011
The announcement in March by the Ministry of Justice and Department of Communities and Local Government that squatting is to be changed from a civil to a criminal offence is excellent news for facilities and property managers.
It will make it easier for commercial property landlords and housing associations to evict the estimated 20,000 squatters in the UK, as the police can be involved at an early stage.
Currently, property owners have to go through the process of obtaining eviction through the civil law process which takes considerably longer. The law will change in early 2012 with initial proposals published later this year.
The decision follows an Early Day Motion on 7 March from Brighton and Hove MP Mike Weatherley whose own constituency suffers from the problem of squatters in both commercial and residential buildings. In the past 18 months, there have been 10 instances of squatting in council-owned properties in Brighton and Hove, which has cost more than £30,000 in legal bills alone. The repair bill for one particular property was £40,000, according to Weatherley.
A number of government departments have also fallen foul of squatters, including the Ministry of Justice, one of whose buildings was occupied by squatters twice in one year, with interim possession orders being sought to remove the squatters each time.
Squatting is not a criminal offence currently because trespassing is not a crime in English and Welsh law (although it is a level 1 offence in Scotland with a fine not exceeding £200 and a penalty for non-payment of 21 days in prison).
The notion of ‘squatters’ rights’ comes from section 6 of the Criminal Law Act 1977, which makes it an offence to use violence or threats of violence to gain access to premises when there is someone on the premises who is opposed to such entry. It was aimed at preventing unscrupulous landlords from using violence or intimidation to evict legitimate tenants. But it has also been used by squatters to oppose violent entry on the part of the property owner.
The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 makes it clear that section 6 of the above act does not apply to a person who is a “displaced residential occupier” or a “protected intending occupier” – or acting on their behalf. But it does apply to owners of commercial, industrial or other non-residential properties. However, one option the government is considering is whether section 6 could be amended to give non-residential property owners the same rights as displaced residential occupiers to break back into their property.
If the worst happens, and squatters get into one of your properties, take legal advice straight away. Although squatting remains a civil issue until the law change, there are several legal avenues to explore, the most common of which is a Possession Order.
The police can also arrest squatters if an offence has been committed – for example, if squatters in a shop have drilled into walls (criminal damage) or used the utilities (theft). If the squatters are excessively noisy or there is evidence of fly-tipping, property owners can report it to the local authority who may be able to take appropriate enforcement action under the Environmental Protection Act 1990.
Sometimes local authorities can issue an order banning trespassers from assembling on land that is of historical, architectural, archaeological or scientific importance, and the police make an arrest if this is flouted.
A property owner can also seek an interim possession order from the courts within a few days. It requires a squatter to vacate premises within 24 hours of receiving the order. If they do not they are committing a criminal offence and may be arrested. The offence is punishable by up to six months imprisonment. It is also an offence for them to return to the property without the permission of the rightful occupier for a period of up to 12 months from the date of service of the order. Last year 360 applications for interim possession orders were made in the civil courts. However, an interim possession order does not give the property owner final possession of the property. The owner must make an application for possession when applying for an interim possession order. Advice on applying for an interim possession order can be viewed on the HM Courts and Tribunals Service website at www.hmcourts-service.gov.uk
While the proposed change will make eviction easier, the majority of damage squatters cause takes place in the first 48 hours of occupancy. Therefore preventing squatters accessing your property is easier and cheaper than dealing with the consequences.
Keeping vacant property secure
1. Conduct a risk assessment and take precautions
Carry out a risk assessment looking at how squatters could access the properties and also other potential sources of damage. Disconnect services to the property to prevent water damage or fire risk and check protective installations such as fire detection and alarm systems. Property owners may be liable if a squatter or intruder injures himself within the property so it still needs to comply with health and safety legislation.
2. Keeping up appearances
Don’t advertise the fact that the property is vacant. Collect post, or seal up letterboxes and tidy up external areas regularly.
3. Secure the premises
Make sure the premises are protected by boarding up windows and doors or installing temporary alarms.
4. Inform your insurer
If you know a property in your portfolio is going to become vacant, tell your insurance firm so that you are covered in the event of an intrusion.
Mark Cosh is European director at vacant property management specialists SitexOrbis