In the event a person occupies a premises with the intention of living in it, and has no legal interest, in England & Wales this is referred to as “squatting”. If left uninterrupted, over a period of time a squatter can acquire legal interest in the property through the doctrine of adverse possession.
A landlord can usually seek recovery of their property through eviction proceedings, with a timescale varying between a few days to a month.
Definition of squatting
Where the owner of the premises grants permission, the occupant cannot be considered a squatter. If the occupant previously had a legal interest in the premises, such as a tenant or license holder, they cannot be considered a squatter.
Residential and non-residential premises
If the premises are considered residential, a squatter can face a custodial sentence and fines of up to £5,000. By contrast, if they are non-residential, occupation is not a crime in and of itself, unless the squatter damages the property or uses its utilities.
The critical issue with residential squatting is whether the occupant knew or should have known they did not have legal interest in the premises. As a result, a squatter may attempt to claim they believe they held a license or lease.
Eviction proceedings are commenced in the relevant County Court, by means of action for Summary Possession. If there is danger of immediate and irreparable harm to the landlord’s interest, they may seek proceedings before the High Court for a faster procedure.
When proceedings are commenced, notice must be served upon the squatter occupying the premises. In practice, it will take up to a week for a hearing on the action for Summary Possession. One obtained, the matter is noted to the County Court bailiff, or High Court Enforcement Officer, who will issue a warning to the squatters to vacate the premises or be removed forcibly. If resort has to be made to force, eviction proceedings can take up to one month in total duration.
Interim Possession Orders
In order to minimise financial loss, a landlord holding commercial premises can apply for an Interim Possession Order (IPO). This is done in tandem with an action for Summary Possession, and will entail a hearing on the Order within three days of an application by the landlord. As with an action for Summary Possession, notice must be served upon the squatters.
If granted, an IPO is valid for service upon the squatters for two days. Upon service, if the squatters fail to vacate within 24 hours, they are subject to arrest by police.
It is possible for a landlord to resort to a private Enforcement Agent to forcibly remove squatters pursuant to the landlord’s common law rights. Through this method, possession can be obtained within three days.
Private enforcement carries with it inherent risk of claims for injury to persons or property brought by squatters in the event excessive force is considered to have been used.
Adverse possession and squatters
Where land is occupied by a squatter who does not have an initial legal interest in it for several years, at common law in England & Wales being 12 years, that occupier can acquire the right to be registered as the owner of that land under the doctrine of adverse possession.
After the coming into force of the 2002 Land Registration scheme, this doctrine was altered to the effect that after 10 years the occupier of registered land could apply to the Land Registry to be acknowledged as the rightful owner, however, the actual owner would be notified and provided the opportunity to (1) oppose via counter notice or (2) object to the registration within 65 days.
An objection to the registration is available to the actual owner if they contest that the occupier has not been present for the requisite 10-year period.
An opposition to the registration via counter notice will result in the occupier’s application being objected, unless the following grounds apply:
- It would be unconscionable for the owner to disposes the occupier. This consideration is grounded in equity.
- The adverse possession has arisen due to the occupier owning adjacent land and through mistaken but reasonable belief in the borders between the land they came into occupation. For this exception to apply, the actual owner must have registered the land subject to adverse possession over a year before the occupant sought to register it as their own.
If the application for registration is rejected as a result of opposition by the owner, the occupant is subject to a two-year estoppel from making another applicant, and the owner may subject them to eviction proceedings.
If a property is unregistered, the Land Registry may not be obliged to notify the owner of an applicant for title. This will leave the owner vulnerable to losing their property to an adverse possessor.
Human Rights Act 1998 and squatter’s rights
The Human Rights Act 1998 served to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into UK domestic law, to the effect that individuals can bring claims in domestic courts that their Convention rights have been violated.
The Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights held in 2007 that squatter’s rights to obtain title to property by means of adverse possession did not violate the owner’s Article 1, First Protocol right concerning protection of private property.
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If a landlord becomes aware of squatters having occupied their premises, it is vital to contact a Property Solicitor in order to ensure they adhere to proper procedure in moving to have them evicted as expeditiously as possible.
At Lewis Nedas, our team of Property Litigation Solicitors have broad experience in both commercial and residential property litigation. We have successfully advised clients with highly complex and multi-faceted cases. To speak with one of our Property Lawyers, please contact us on 020 7387 2032 or complete our online enquiry form.