Since the beginning of this year, the so called Autonomous Nation of Anarchist Libertarians has occupied a number of multimillion pound residential properties in and around Belgravia. Autonomous Nation’s cause is to highlight the number of properties sitting vacant, whilst the number of homeless people continues to rise. Their occupation of a £14 million mansion at 19 Buckingham Gate was widely publicised as it posed a potential security risk to Her Majesty the Queen with a direct view into Buckingham Palace gardens and Wellington Barracks.
Squatting in residential properties has been illegal since 2012 but that has not made the issue go away. Owners often find that the police remain reluctant to act. The only alternative is to apply to court for an order for possession but this can be costly and time consuming. It can also give squatters an opportunity to air grievances in a public forum, attracting media attention. Squatters will look for any procedural irregularities, or try to rely on their inability to obtain legal advice and the importance of their human rights in order to delay eviction. Frustratingly for owners, this may result in the court giving the squatters more time before their inevitable eviction.
Even a short delay can be problematic, for example where the owner is about to start works at the property, or there is a high risk of costly damage being caused by the squatters whilst they remain in occupation. The end result is that squatters remain a very real threat to both commercial and residential premises.
The following tips will assist owners faced with the prospect of evicting squatters:
1. Don’t forget section 6 of the Criminal Law Act 1977. This section makes it a criminal offence to force entry to a property when there is someone present who opposes entry – even if it’s your own property! Although this protects squatters once they have taken occupation it will also work to protect a property if a security guard is present when squatters try to enter. As always, prevention is better than cure so review the security measures at vacant premises on a regular basis.
2. Know who to call and make sure you instruct good enforcement officers to deal with the situation from the outset. Professional squatters know their rights and even minor technical errors in following procedure can lead to delays down the line. Plus, enforcement officers can provide vital “on the ground” information to the lawyers.
3. Put forward an individual in your organisation who can help the lawyers gather the necessary information in relation to the property and the events that led to it being occupied. This is especially important in time critical cases where an eviction is required urgently.
4. Make your lawyer aware of any sensitive information that you would not want to appear in court papers (such as particularly valuable items remaining in the property, or circumstances making it particularly vulnerable to damage or the threat of further unlawful occupation) and bear in mind that this information will be seen by the squatters and could even find its way into the media.
5. If there is a particular threat posed by the squatters’ occupation, such as health and safety risks, some feature of the property worthy of greater protection or a risk to the wider community, draw it to your lawyers’ attention as it may warrant an application for expedition.
6. Arrange a proper handover of the security arrangements from the enforcement agents post eviction as re-occupation by the squatters could mean another trip to court.
Professional squatters are always on the look-out for vulnerable properties. The risk should never be under-estimated when any property becomes vacant, whether it is commercial or residential.