Squatters: The Protection from Eviction Act
Squatting is when an empty or abandoned property is occupied by one or more people, without permission from the owner, usually without their knowledge and with no legal right to occupy it.
We’ve all heard of squatters, and squatters rights, but even though the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 made squatting into a criminal offence, you still can’t get genuine squatters removed from your property unless you have a court order.
What Are Squatters?A squatter is someone who has no legal ownership, lease or tenancy agreement – although many squatters seem to believe that they still have every right to live in a property, if it has been left vacant. Unfortunately for landlords, squatters can’t be evicted from a property without the proper court order.
What to Do if You Get Squatters in your PropertyTell the police if you find that there’s someone living in your property without your consent. It’s also wise to be there when the police attend the property – sometimes they can cause damage to the place in the process of evicting your unwanted guests.
Don’t use force to try and get rid of the squatters yourself – ironically, you could find that this gets you accused of a criminal act under the Protection from Eviction Act 1977. Reasoning with them politely is allowed – but if they won’t leave voluntarily, you’ll have to apply to the court.
Getting an Interim Possession OrderThere is a fast track procedure that lets landlords apply to the court for an interim possession order of their property. To get one of these orders, which is made into a permanent possession order at a later date and following a court hearing, you need to make a claim within 28 days of finding out that you have squatters at your property. You will have to give the squatters five days' notice and serve the hearing notices on them in person – or fix the notice to the door of the house.
If you don’t apply for your interim possession order in time, the judge will take into consideration whether you should have known about the occupation before you did, and this can make a difference to whether your order is granted.
Gather evidence that will prove to the court that the people in your property are squatters, if you know any names that can be helpful. Also, speak to neighbours who may be willing to give a statement on your behalf.
You will have to make an undertaking (legal promise) to the court that you will let the occupiers back into the property and even pay them compensation if the court decides later on that you weren’t entitled to evict them.
You will also have to undertake not let the premises to anyone else, damage or dispose of the property until the court has made a final decision and given you a full possession order.
An interim possession orders squatters to leave the property within 24 hours and not return to it within 12 months of the order. If they won’t leave, they can be evicted by a court bailiff or a policeman, and can be fined or imprisoned.
Avoiding SquattersIt’s best to avoid the problem in the first place – so keep the property safe and securely locked when it’s empty. Remember that even when the property is let, a landlord can be held responsible for any tenant's losses if the property isn’t secure, and a lack of security leads to burglary.Make it look as if there’s someone there. Keep the curtains and blinds up, and if possible you could also have lights switches on timers.
Visit the property as often as you can, keep an eye on it and make sure there are no signs that anyone has been trying to get in. If the property is well looked after and regularly visited, it won’t be such an attractive option.