Trespassers are an increasing problem for owners of vacant commercial premises, not only because of the costs and time spent removing them, but also due to the significant damage that they can cause. This article sets out some practical steps for property owners facing unexpected and unwelcome visitors.

The Problem

Owners of vacant commercial premises in Central London and beyond are at risk of their properties being occupied by trespassers. Of particular concern are the organised groups operating within London that have the primary intention of taking control of buildings, causing damage and making a political statement.

Such trespassers can present a major problem, as they can hinder proposed developments, thwart lettings to new tenants and often leave property in a poor state. There are also examples of squatters causing tens of thousands of pounds worth of damage to properties by illegally dumping waste.

The problem is often compounded by the fact that the police are generally reluctant to intervene as trespassers in a non-residential context fall under the remit of civil law.

What action can be taken?

If trespassers are discovered on your property then you should take legal advice immediately. Usually, the first step is to make an urgent application to Court for a Possession Order.

The claim can be started either in the County Court or, where the application is urgent, in the High Court. From a land owner’s perspective, the High Court is preferable as applications can be heard and dealt with more swiftly. According to a Practice Note, the High Court will deal with urgent claims against trespassers where there is a substantial risk of public disturbance or of serious harm to persons or property which properly requires immediate attention.

Examples of urgency include where there has been substantial tipping of waste material on commercial property and further tipping may be likely; where there is substantial harm to property linked to a substantial risk to persons; and where there is a need to manage the risk of public disturbance or further substantial risk of harm to persons or land.

If the High Court procedure is followed promptly and accurately, a Possession Order can sometimes be obtained within hours of the proceedings being issued (depending on the Court's timetable). However, the average time for obtaining the Order is one day.

How long does it take to enforce the removal of trespassers?

Once a Possession Order has been given, the next step is to instruct High Court enforcement officers to enforce the removal of the trespassers. If there is a risk that the removal could turn violent, this is often carried out with the assistance from the Police. The High Court Enforcement Officer should be lined up and ready (depending on the time of day and client instructions) to enforce the order as soon as it is given by the court.

In order to ensure the prompt and efficient removal of the trespassers, ensure that the investment value of your property is preserved and to limit any damage that may be caused to the property as a consequence of the trespassers' occupation it is imperative that swift action is taken.