There have been a number of news reports of squatters taking over empty houses and the Government has said it is increasingly concerned about the distress and misery that squatters can cause.
If press reports are to be believed, squatting is on the increase against a background of a shortage of affordable accommodation. Commentators expect the problem to get worse. But it is wrong that the legitimate occupiers should be deprived of the use of their properties. The Evening Standard has reported about a local community forming a 'home guard' to keep out squatters after neighbours of two sisters found out that their house had been taken over by Romanian squatters after they went on a foreign holiday. More recently, a couple expecting their first child had to resort to pleading with the squatters to allow them back into their home.
It is a criminal offence for any person who goes onto residential premises and remains as a trespasser to fail to leave those premises on being required to do so by a displaced residential occupier. But it can still take time for the police to gather evidence. They are frequently unable to provide the resources and will advise property owners that it is a civil matter.
Although home owners will recover possession from squatters by issuing a claim for summary possession in the local county court, it is not without some cost with the risk of damage to property and belongings and the prospect of having to clear up after the squatters have left.
Since the mid 1990s property owners have also been able to apply for interim possession orders backed up by criminal sanctions but this is dependent upon police manpower and their co-operation and the take-up has not been great.
The options under discussion are for a new offence of squatting in buildings to be created or alternatively for existing criminal offences to be expanded.
Any improvement in how the problem is dealt with will depend upon the time and resources made available to the enforcement agencies. For this reason, the better option may be to leave the criminal law unchanged but work with the enforcement authorities to improve enforcement of existing offences.
At present, the action taken by many home owners is to issue a squatters summons in the local county court. That involves filing witness statements, explaining the circumstances in which the squatters obtained entry and that they did so and remain in occupation without consent. There is no need to identify the names of the squatters. Strict rules apply about serving the court papers and often home owners instruct a process server or enquiry agent who will be familiar with the rules about service. Unless the squatters come up with an argument amounting to a possible defence, the district judge will generally make an immediate order for possession which must then be passed to the county court bailiff for enforcement. Although bailiff's offices do what they can to assist, it can take at least four weeks for a bailiff’s appointment to be enforced. Quite often, the squatters vacate on the morning of the date fixed for the bailiff's appointment and move on leaving behind them a trail of disaster. One option is to transfer the case to the High Court for enforcement by the sheriff who can sometimes take steps to enforce possession orders more swiftly.
The court can award costs in favour of home owners but generally it will be difficult to recover costs from the squatters, either because their names will not be known or they will quickly move on. Although the squatters may also be liable for criminal damage, even if the squatters can be identified and traced, they are likely not to be in a position to meet any costs or damages awards.
Property owners need to be able to act quickly and the present system fails to do this. It remains to be seen what will come of the Government's consultation. The Government needs to address the critical housing shortage but in the meantime, what are home owners to do?
Anyone going away for extended periods should always ensure that their properties are made secure; neighbours should be informed and asked to keep a watchful eye out for squatters. Where displaced home owners return to find squatters in their house, one option is for them to break back in, not withstanding any 'squatters rights notice' that may be fixed to the door. Unfortunately, this may not be practicable in many cases. The police can enter the property to arrest squatters based on other offences such as burglary but unfortunately a displaced home owner may not enjoy co-operation from the police with evidence of any crime by the squatters being difficult to establish.
Alternatively a home owner can take county court possession proceedings. In the most obvious cases where home owners have been ousted by squatters, the courts will be prepared to take a very robust approach and make an early order for possession, provided all the court papers are in order and have been properly served.
Different considerations will apply with non-residential property or for instance with problems caused by raves.