Squatting: an own goal?
In October 2015, a Manchester hotel undergoing extensive refurbishment works was occupied by squatters and housing activists.
However, the squatters were given the owners' blessing to stay in occupation of the premises for the duration of the winter months, on the condition that they allowed surveyors to access the property when required. Who were these owners? Manchester United stars, Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs.
While Neville and Giggs' actions can be commended, one wonders whether this could be an own goal if possession is not willingly given up by the squatters in the future. There are many commercial property owners who know all too well the perils of squatters on their property, the damage that can be caused and the time and expense that can be incurred in obtaining possession. If damage has been caused, a commercial property owner may call the police, however, unless there are clear signs of criminal damage the police can be reluctant to get involved.
As a reminder, if it has been 28 days or less since a commercial property owner found out their property was being squatted, an application can be made for an interim possession order (an "IPO"), with a hearing for a final possession order being held within seven days of the IPO being granted. The more commonly used procedure to obtain possession is to issue a summary possession claim in the local county court. This can be done relatively quickly although there must be at least 2 days between the service of the claim form on the squatters and the hearing date. At the hearing, which would more often than not fail to be attended by any of the squatters, the court would usually make an order requiring the squatters to give up possession immediately. Enforcement of the order can be sped up by having the claim transferred to the High Court so that the High Court Enforcement Officers can carry out the eviction more quickly.
- The position is altogether different for residential properties. On 1 September 2012, squatting in residential buildings became a criminal offence, punishable by a maximum penalty of six months' imprisonment, a fine or both. The offence was created by section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (the LAPSO) and was introduced to protect homeowners and lawful occupiers of any type of residential building. The offence is committed when:
- a person is in a residential building as a trespasser having entered it as a trespasser
- the person knows or ought to know that he or she is a trespasser
- the person is living in the building or intends to live there for any period.
The criminalisation of residential squatting has been criticised by groups such as Empty Homes, a charitable organisation which campaigns for more empty homes to be brought into use for the benefit of those in need of housing. In September 2015 they estimated there were 610,000 empty homes in England, more than 200,000 of which are thought to have been empty for more than six months.
Although section 144 LAPSO has seemed to benefit the owners of residential premises, there have been criticisms that the criminalisation of squatting in residential property has only led to an influx in squatting of commercial property.
While there is potential for the government to extend the criminal offence to commercial property, no changes are expected imminently.
For now, some tips to prevent squatting in commercial property include:
- ensuring the property is secure and alarmed
- arranging for the property to be patrolled regularly if necessary
- turning off and disconnecting utilities to make the property less attractive to potential squatters
- securing the property as soon as it become unoccupied through surrender, forfeiture or lease expiry.