The police may be able to help remove trespassers from your land.
Removing squatters from property can be an expensive, time-consuming and sometimes daunting job - particularly when there are large numbers of people and vehicles. We hear reports of the police being reluctant to get involved in what is seen as a civil issue. However, under the section 61 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 (CJPO), the police have the power to remove trespassers in certain circumstances.
The circumstances in which the police have the power to remove trespassers are where:
- the landowner has asked the police to use their powers under CJPO;
- the police attending the land reasonably believe that two or more persons are trespassing with the common purpose of residing there for any length of time;
- reasonable steps have been taken by the landowner to ask them to leave; and either
- any of those persons have caused damage to the land or property on the land or used threating, abusive or insulting words or behaviour towards the occupier, a member of his family or an employee or agent of his; or
- those persons have between them six or more vehicles on the land.
If all of these criteria are fulfilled, the police can direct the trespassers to leave. If the trespassers fail to leave as soon as reasonably practicable, or leave but enter again within three months, they will commit an offence punishable by imprisonment for a maximum of three months, a fine up to £2,500, or both.
The police also have the power to seize and remove the trespassers' vehicles. In practice, in order to do so, they will often require support from civil enforcement officers to tow vehicles away.
Exercise of police powers
The Association of Chief Police Officers published guidance in 2008. This indicates that the police are most likely to exercise their powers to take enforcement action where:
- camping is taking place on land designated as a public amenity, such as parks, recreation areas, school fields and similar locations;
- the trespass is interrupting the operation of legitimate businesses;
- there is forced entry to land causing damage to any fixtures, fittings or landscaping (including planted areas) or interference with electrical, water or gas supplies;
- vehicles are being driven along footpaths or highways not specifically designed for road vehicles, or parked so as to cause an obstruction;
- there is dumping or tipping of rubbish, waste materials or trade waste, or deposit human waste openly in public areas; and
- there is abuse, intimidation or harassment, or other anti-social behaviour, including untethered animals.
Different police forces also have different policies about when their powers should be used. For example, West Yorkshire Police divides land into 'primary land' being hospitals grounds, school grounds, public spaces etc. where there will be a presumption in favour of using the powers, and 'secondary' land, where there will be a presumption against using them.
If the police powers cannot be used or are not exercised, a landowner will need to use the procedure set out in Part 55 of the Civil Procedure Rules to regain possession. This is a civil action, not involving the police and it requires the service of notices on trespassers in a prescribed manner and a court hearing. A resulting possession order will be enforceable by County Court bailiffs or (if transferred to the High Court) High Court Enforcement Officers.
If police powers under the CJPO are exercisable and there is a pressing need for the trespassers to be removed, the powers under section 61 can be a useful addition to a landowner's armoury. Even if the police decline to become involved, it may be possible to foreshorten the standard timescales for trespasser eviction via the courts.
Claims for possession involving a substantial risk of public disturbance and/or serious risk of harm to persons, particularly where the disturbance may be widespread, can be brought in the High Court. Where there is an urgent need to avert public disturbance or prevent risk of damage (most frequently fly-tipping), the High Court will consider fixing the final possession hearing very soon after the application has been issued, occasionally even on the same day as issue.
Finally, it is worth remembering that, for residential buildings, section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 applies to make it a criminal offence to trespass by 'living' in a residential building. In such a case, the police have powers to enter and search any premises for the purpose of arresting a person for such an offence.