Squatters are a growing problem for the North West commercial property sector, due to burgeoning numbers and changes in the law.
It is estimated that there are now up to 50,000 squatters in the UK, representing a five-fold increase in the last 20 years. Before September 2012, the majority of squatters occupied residential property, but the criminalisation of squatting in residential property has seen squatters turn their attention to commercial property.
To be a squatter, the person must occupy whole or part of a property. The person is not the legal owner of the property and he intends to treat the property as his own, without intending to pay any monies to the landowner even if asked to do so. It does not matter that the squatter realises that he can be disposed of by the landowner or does not intend to oust the landowner (JA Pye (Oxford) Ltd -v- Graham  28 EG 129 (CS) (HL)).
Squatting in residential property has become criminalised, however squatting in commercial property remains to be a civil matter. The Criminal Law Act 1977 makes it an offence for the landowner to use or threaten violence to gain entry while a squatter is on the premises, which often removes the possibility of a self-help remedy.
A landowner should start to take steps as soon as he is aware a squatter is residing in his property; by doing so, the landowner will have more options available to evict the squatter and it will appear more prominent to the court.
In order to remove a squatter from commercial premises, a claim to recover the land must be made to the county court for the district in which the property is situated, unless any of the circumstances apply which may justify starting the claim in the High Court. Only limited written evidence is needed; a squatter need not be named and service can be effected by posting the claim form through the letterbox or pushed under the door.
A claim for a summary possession order can be made to the court. Once the claim is made a hearing should take place after two to five days, although in practice it can take longer. If serious damage or assault has occurred, the claim can be expedited so that the hearing can take place sooner. Once an order for possession has been obtained, it will normally be necessary to instruct High Court Enforcement Officers to take steps to secure vacant possession.
A commercial landowner also has the option to make an application for an interim possession order simultaneously to making a claim for a SPO. However this is not widely used in practice because it is only available if proceedings are issued within 28 days of the date on which the landowner first knew or ought to have reasonably known the squatter was residing in the property and the landowner will have to be prepared to give certain undertakings to reinstate the squatter should the court decide an IPO should not have been awarded.
Should the court decide to grant an IPO, the squatter should vacate the property within 24 hours of the landowner serving the IPO to the squatter, within 48 hours of the court granting the IPO. Should the squatter refuse to evacuate the premises, he will be at that point committing a criminal offence and he risks being arrested by the police or being evicted by the court bailiff.
Should a squatter reside in a property for 10 or 12 years, depending on whether the property is registered or unregistered, he can take steps legally to acquire the property through adverse possession.
Of course it is always preferable to avoid the problem in the first place, for example by securing and monitoring vacant properties…
This article originally featured on Place North West.