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It is important to remember that a tenant who refuses to leave your property on the expiry of a tenancy or the expiry of a Section 21 Notice is not a squatter. Where a tenant refuses to leave, landlords must follow the squatter eviction procedures set out by law to get their property back.
The new offence of squatting is defined in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders (LASPO) Act 2012 which came into effect on September 1st 2012. The offence is committed by anyone who trespasses in a residential building (i.e. property that is clearly residential and was used as such prior to the squatters' act of trespass).
The occupants are guilty even if they entered the premises before the new law came into effect and they knew (or ought to have known) that they were trespassing yet clearly live in the building or intend to live there. This new offence may involve criminal sanctions (51 weeks in prison or a fine of up to £5,000) but there is some debate about whether it is an arrestable offence.
The police have moved quickly to enforce the new law, however, they may become increasingly reluctant to get involved for a variety of reasons. If you do have squatters who refuse to leave your property, you may have to commence civil proceedings in the courts to remove them if for any reason the police refuse to take action.
How can I evict squatters?
The Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 created a new arrestable offence of ‘squatting in a residential property'. This makes squatting punishable by up to 51 weeks in prison or a fine of up to £5,000.
Despite some concerns about the practicality of the new law, police forces by and large do seem to be taking action to evict squatters when asked to do so, so the landlord’s first action should be to contact the police. However, there are some circumstances in which the police may still deem the problem to be a civil matter and take no action.
In these circumstances, it’s still possible to removes squatters, provided the landlord or property owner acts quickly. Access Legal can obtain a court order to evict the squatters which is then enforced by court officers. An Interim Possession Order (IPO) can be used if the squatters have been in the property 28 days or less from the date the proceedings are issued. If the squatters have been present for more than 28 days, there is an alternative that can be pursued through the courts that takes slightly longer.
The IPO process can progress quickly to the service of a Final Possession Order. Once this is made, the squatters cannot return to the property within 12 months, otherwise they would be committing an arrestable criminal offence that will be pursued irrespective of the circumstances.
Most landlords find that once the IPO is served, squatters leave almost immediately.
If squatting is a criminal offence
It's true that simply being on another person's property without their permission is not usually a criminal offence. That goes way back to Roman times and the concept that land cannot be 'stolen' as such. There were circumstances when squatting could be considered a criminal act if, for instance, the squatters committed a crime to gain entry.
The Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 created a new arrestable offence of ‘squatting in a residential property', punishable by up to 51 weeks in prison or a fine of up to £5,000. Property owners with squatters are now able to contact the police immediately, but a police officer will still have to make an on the spot judgment about whether a criminal offence has indeed been committed.
In the case of squatting in a vacant property, all the squatter needs to do is maintain they have committed no criminal offence or have a tenancy agreement and the police will immediately back off, maintaining that it's a civil matter. If the squatters are well known 'persistent offenders', the police will want to do a risk assessment and if protestors are at the property to support the squatters, the eviction will be delayed.
However, it is true that in most of the recent cases these new powers have been enthusiastically pursued by the police, especially in squatting ‘hot spots’, so it would appear that landlords and homeowners are indeed better protected.
If there are restrictions about removing a squatter
Although ‘squatter’s rights’ as such don’t exist, the process for someone who is not the legal owner of a property to take ownership after living in it for a certain amount of time is called adverse possession. The amount of time a squatter needs to stay in a property before they can get ownership depends on whether the land is registered or unregistered.
If the land is unregistered, a squatter would generally need to occupy it for 12 years to get ownership. If the land is registered and a squatter lives there for 10 years, they can apply for registration. The current registered owner will be able to object and in most circumstances will be able to stop squatters from taking ownership.
Remember that a tenant who refuses to leave your property on the expiry of a Section 21 Notice is not a squatter. Illegally evicting or harassing a tenant is a crime under the Protection from Eviction Act 1977. Under the Housing Act 1988, a landlord who has granted an assured shorthold tenancy has a legal right to get their property back upon expiry of a validly prepared and served Section 21 Notice.
The law relating to the correct expiry date and the use of the correct Section 21 Notice is complex and sometimes very confusing for landlords. According to the London Association of District Judges, using incorrect dates on such notices is the principal reason that seven out of 10 court actions are thrown out of court.
More about squatter evictions
The popular belief that 'squatters rights' exist comes from a law which makes it illegal to threaten or use violence to enter a property where someone is present and opposes the entry. This was introduced to stop some unscrupulous landlords using violence to evict their tenants, but has also been quoted by squatters.
If squatters have taken over possession of your property, clearly you need to review your security arrangements but there are other actions you can take to remove them. Squatting is defined in Section 144(3) (b) of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) as an offence committed by anyone who is in a residential building as a trespasser (even if they entered it before the new law came into effect on September 1st 2012) where they knew (or ought to have known) that they were trespassing and clearly intended to live in the building.
The LASPO Act defines a residential property as a building that has been 'designed or adapted before the time of entry for use as a place to live'. Squatters who squat in what was an office or shop are not committing an offence.
There already are legal procedures that police and councils can use in the rare instances of someone squatting in somebody's home and no-one can have any objections to toughening up the law to deal with people who deliberately enter an obviously occupied property with the intention of squatting.
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