What are the Laws on Squatters?
Under current English laws squatting is not a criminal offence. In most cases where squatters take over a property the owner, or the person entitled to occupy the property, will have to issue civil proceedings for repossession.
(Squatting is a criminal offence in Scotland. The article below provides an overview of the laws on squatting in England and Wales.)
The Laws on SquattersAlthough squatting itself is not currently a criminal offence, squatters may still have acted unlawfully and therefore be liable to be arrested. This could be the case where they break into a property to occupy it, cause damage to a property or use utilities at a property without permission. Squatters could also be guilty of a criminal offence if they occupy a property which is currently, or about to be, lived in.
Starting a Repossession Case Against SquattersSpecial rules apply to repossession claims against squatters and it should be possible to get a repossession order relatively quickly – sometimes within a matter of days.
In legal terms squatters are known as trespassers. To start a repossession case against trespassers a Claim Form, Particulars of Claim and evidence must all be filed at court. The Particulars of Claim and evidence must confirm:
- that the claimant has the right to immediate possession of the property;
- how the claimant became aware of the trespassers;
- that the trespassers entered the property without permission.
The claimant will need several copies of the court documents. The court and claimant will each keep one and the claimant will need as many additional copies as are required to give the trespassers effective notice of the repossession case.
As soon as the court issues the repossession case they will provide the time and date for the hearing. The amount of notice which must be given to the squatters depends on the type of property. If the property is purely commercial the trespassers need only be given 2 days' notice of the possession hearing. If the property is residential, or partly residential, they must be given 5 days' notice.
Serving Court Papers on SquattersNotice is given by “serving” the documents on the squatters. An attempt may be made to hand the documents directly to them. Whether or not this is possible, copies of the court documents should also be affixed to parts of the property (usually including the front door) where they are likely to be seen and a further copy should be inserted through the letterbox (if it has not been blocked) in a transparent envelope addressed to “the occupiers”.
The Hearing of a Repossession Claim Against SquattersSquatters should not have a defence to a valid possession claim. If all procedural requirements are complied with, the court should make an immediate possession order. In practice, the only reason why a judge should refuse to make a repossession order is if the claimant has not followed the rules or the judge is not satisfied that the occupiers actually are trespassers.
Interim Possession Orders and SquattersIf the claimant does not want to wait until the repossession hearing it may be possible to apply for an interim possession order. An application for an interim possession order may be made if the only claim is for possession against trespassers and the application is made within 28 days of the date when the claimant first found out that the trespassers had entered the property. The application must be supported by written evidence provided by the claimant and must be served on the trespassers within 24 hours of the application being issued.
Hearing and Enforcement of Interim Possession OrdersThe hearing of an interim possession order may take place in the absence of the occupiers. To obtain an interim possession order the claimant is likely to have to provide certain undertakings to the court which will take effect if the court subsequently decides that the claimant was not entitled to an interim possession order. These could include an undertaking that the occupiers will be allowed back into the property and that the claimant will pay them damages.
If an interim possession order is granted by the court it will require the occupiers to leave the property within 24 hours of the order being served on them. The court will set a time for a final repossession hearing, when the occupiers may attend and put forward any defence they wish to raise to the repossession claim. An interim possession order must be served on the occupiers within 48 hours of it being sealed by the court. Failure to vacate the property within 24 hours will be a criminal offence.