The Government has said it is increasingly concerned about the distress and misery that squatters can cause following extensive reporting in recent months of squatters taking over empty houses. Illegal squatting can also be a real headache for Registered Providers (RPs) with empty stock on their books.
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 and it is wrong that the legitimate occupiers should be deprived of the use of their properties.
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. The reality is that 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 RPs will recover possession from squatters by issuing a claim for summary possession in the local county court, it is not without some cost and the risk of damage to property 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 their effectiveness 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, 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 RPs 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 it often makes more sense to 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 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 but at significantly greater expense.
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 unlikely 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 enable them to do this. The Government's consultation has now ended and it remains to be seen what will come out of it. The Government needs to address the critical housing shortage but in the meantime, what are RPs to do?
RPs should make their properties secure and perhaps consider employing guardians; neighbours should be informed and asked to keep a watchful eye out for squatters. Where RPs find squatters in their properties, 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 owner may not enjoy co-operation from the police if evidence of any crime by the squatters is difficult to establish.
Alternatively RPs can take county court possession proceedings. In the most obvious cases where property owners have been ousted by squatters, the courts will be prepared to take a very robust approach and make any early order for possession, provided all the court papers are in order and have been properly served.