Prevent squatters from staying in your commercial property

There are countless examples of it – a business shuts down and within days, squatters have moved in.  Or a business is closed for refurbishment and while the project is taking place, people move in and start to use it for some illegal purpose.

‘Squatters rights’ – the reality

Squatters are often the nightmare of any landlord or property owner, so it is important to understand what is claimed as squatters’ rights, however, in reality, there is no such thing as squatter’s rights. What squatters relay on is Section 6 of the Criminal Justice Act, in which one cannot use violence to enter a building if an occupant inside objects.

However, in September 2012, new legislation was brought in that at first, seemed to help with this.  Section 144 of the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment Offenders Act or LASPO Act outlines a series of things that are now a criminal offence.  These include:

  • If someone trespasses and subsequently occupies a residential building
  • That person knows or ought to have known they were trespassing
  • The person is living in the building or intends to for a period of time

The problem with the new legislation is that it only covers residential properties.  So local authorities that found someone living in a house they own without paying rent or being permitted to do so, could use Section 144.  This gave them a clear legal path to follow to remove the squatters and reclaim the property.

But the law doesn’t cover the owners of commercial properties, where squatting is still not seen as a criminal offence.  This means it is still more difficult for commercial property owners to deal with squatters in their property.  It also meant that many squatters moved their attention from domestic properties and focused instead on commercial ones, knowing that it was more difficult for them to be legally removed.

Since the law was passed, there has been a 25% rise in the number of commercial squatting cases.  A wide variety of businesses have been targeted from vacant pubs to empty bank branches, department stores to office buildings.  Some landlords have even started to rent properties for short time periods such as six months just to have someone in the building and reduce the risk that squatters take residence.

Criminal activities

Sometimes the best way to deal with squatters isn’t as squatters but as law breakers in other regards.  If you find evidence of criminal activity, you are alert the police and they may be able to get involved.  However, Whilst it would be sensible to get the police involved in most cases they will say that it is a civil matter and leave it at that. Things to watch out for include:

  • Causing damage when getting into the property
  • Causing damage while in the property
  • Ignoring a court order to leave the property
  • Stealing from the property, equipment or furniture that is inside
  • Using utilities such as gas, electric or water without permission (and without paying for it)
  • Fly-tipping around the property
  • Ignoring a noise abatement notice

If you find evidence of any of this kind of activity or even more overt criminal activity like drug dealing or theft, then you can contact the police to make a report.

Removing squatters from a commercial property

The good news is that squatters often do not have the right to be in your property, but you need to make sure nobody has let them in, because the eviction process is different in that case. For example, if a former tenant has let them in, they are not squatters, and they may have rights. Squatters are the only people who entered the property by trespassing.

In order to deal with the squatters’ removal, you will need to get in touch with an enforcement agency, such as Able Enforcements Our certificated enforcement officers will then attempt to start by using the process of common law, meaning a court order is not required. As long as they can enter the property without being accosted by the squatters then they can use no more than reasonable force in order to remove them. Once this has been done, they can change the locks on your orders, as it is your legal right to do so. The trouble is that you cannot do so if one of the squatters is actually in the property and opposes. The enforcement officers will never try to use any kind of violence or intimidation tactics, as this is against the law.

Since they do not usually have jobs, squatters are likely to be present in the property 24/7, so using common law and changing the locks may prove problematic. Luckily there are other means the enforcement officers can employ.

Preventing squatters from staying in a commercial property with a court process

To remove squatters from a commercial building when they have prevented the enforcement officers from doing so by using no more than reasonable force, you will need a court order for trespassers. The good news is that the process of getting it is rather quick, so you can have the unwanted guests out in three to four weeks.

There are two main paths to follow legally to remove squatters from your property.

Interim Possession Order (IPO)

We would avoid an IPO at all costs, the problem with an IPO is that it will increase the length of the court proceedings. The IPO make it a Criminal Offence to be in the property once it has been issued. However, most if not all police forces will continue to say that it is a civil matter, and not carry out the eviction.

N5 Claim Form for Possession of Property

This is where a claim is issued against a PERSONS UNKNOWN and is served at the property.  There are very clear time frames involved – the service must take place two clear days before the hearing for non-residential properties and five clear days for residential properties. Although if the squatters are causing damage or anti-social behaviour, you can request that time for service is abridged to less than two days.

The hearing will then take place at Local County Court to make the Order for possession..  Squatters do have an opportunity to put in a defence to the possession claim, It is very unusual that the court will not grant an immediate possession order,

Once the possession order is obtained, the Court bailiffs can carry out the Warrant of Possession, however this could take a few weeks depending on the work load of the County Court Bailiffs.  The quickest and more robust way is to transfer the matter to the High Court, so enforcement officers carry out the eviction.  This is slightly more expensive but quicker than waiting for court bailiffs to list the eviction.

Choosing the right path

If the land has been squatted on doesn’t contain a building, and squatters are on open land, then there is no need to get a court order, Common Law will be sufficient to deal with the matter. If Squatters have locked themselves in on land where no building is located, then Section 6 of the criminal law act does not apply, as Enforcement officers can legally remove locks and chains from gates etc.

How to prevent them from staying in your commercial property.

Commercial properties are appealing for potential squatters because they are often empty at different times of day, so they can move in easily. This should be ringing alarm bells for commercial landlords.

Making squatting more difficult

If squatters have moved into a commercial property you own, it is essential that you act without delay, the process is very quick once started. This ensures that you get to take your property back and prevent the squatters from coming back, too.

It is also worth taking some steps to make the property less appealing for squatters and reduce the risk it will be targeted.  Some steps to take include:

  • Shutting off utilities such as gas, water and electricity
  • Add an alarm to the building and use CCTV cameras or even a security company to monitor to the property
  • Make sure windows and doors are secure and there’s no access from the roof
  • Add security fencing around the perimeter of the property
  • Remove any furniture or equipment from the property
  • Use a letterbox seal to stop access and collect mail regularly to stop the arson risk
  • Inspect the property regularly yourself or by a representative
  • Make sure your insurance covers for intrusion and damage
  • You may even consider stationing a Security Officer within the premises.

How can you prevent squatters from occupying your commercial premises?

Examples of prevention include keeping your property secure all the time, even between tenancies, and relying on reference checks when letting the property, to prevent it from being occupied by people who may abandon it to others.

Able Enforcements can help you with all the legal advice you may need to remove squatters from your property, as well as with solutions to prevent squatting altogether. To find out more about the services we offer to aid you with the removal of commercial squatters, get in touch. You can talk to our hugely experienced team by calling 0345 366 0000 or fill out our contact form and we will get back to you

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