Protecting Your Commercial Premises from Squatters

Posted on August 10, 2016

Following the recent liquidation of British Homes Stores, the Southend-on-Sea High Street branch closed to the public on Wednesday 27th July.  Only a few days after the final closure it was reported that squatters had taken residence in the empty department store; this occupation comes only weeks after squatters took over a Georgian Hotel undergoing refurbishments – Terrace Guest House on the Royal Terrace and allegedly converted it into a drug’s den.

Why squat in commercial premises over residential?

Now most of us have heard the term “Squatters Rights”, this refers to The Criminal Law Act 1977, which made it an offence to threaten violence or use it to enter a property where someone is present. The law was originally introduced to stop landlords from resorting to violence to evict tenants, but it also applies to a person who is in effect a trespasser.

However, in September 2012, new legislation was introduced – Section 144 of the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment Offenders Act or LASPO Act.  This meant that a criminal offence had been committed if:

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

This new legislation protects residential property owners and local authorities if they discover squatters in any residential buildings they own or control. Section 144, however, does not protect owners of commercial properties. Occupying or squatting in a commercial property is still not seen as a criminal offence, which gives the offenders a stronger argument against eviction.

So what do commercial landlords need to do if they discover squatters?

Currently, occupying or squatting in a commercial building, (including public houses, hotels, offices and shops), is a civil offence as opposed to a criminal offence; so there is only one route for a landlord to take and that is to obtain a court order to evict the trespassers. Depending on the urgency you can apply for a Possession Order or opt for an Interim Possession Order, whilst waiting for the court hearing.

Possession Order

A Possession Order is obtained through the County Court, with a hearing usually taking place within a week of a claim form being submitted. Once the order has been granted by the court, a bailiff will warn the squatters that they must vacate the property; if they fail to comply the bailiff can return and forcibly remove them from the premises.

Protocol dictates that the occupiers are given an initial warning, but this can be achieved on the same day as the hearing. Forcible removal can be achieved within a week of the warning, however, it is more likely to take place between 10 and 28 days after the initial warning has been given.

Whilst this process can be slow and landlords have to rely on a bailiff’s availability, it does protect the landlord in other ways. One of the ways it protects the landlord is that it the order is sought through a transparent system and therefore it is very difficult for anyone to find the landlord guilty of enforcing an improper eviction. The Possession Order is reusable for sixth months; meaning that the landlord doesn’t have to waste time or money on obtaining a new order should the same squatters return during that time period; they simply need to reinstruct the bailiff.

Interim Possession Order

An Interim Possession Order is a temporary solution whilst waiting for a Possession Hearing. It is usually used within exceptional circumstances. You would issue applications for both the Interim Possession Order and Possession Order simultaneously.

This style of possession order must be served to the squatters within 48 hours of its issue and it must be served by a bailiff. If the squatters fail to leave within 24 hours, they are committing a criminal offence and as such can be either arrested or they can be evicted by bailiffs.

In the 7 days following the initial eviction a final hearing will be held to convert the interim order into a permanent order.

An Interim Possession Order is far quicker than seek an Order of Summary Possession, as the maximum amount of time it can take is 10 days. However, it can only be applied for within 28 days from when the landlord is made aware of the squatters and it cannot be used when open land is being occupied.

So what can the commercial landlords, like the owners of the Terrace Guest House and BHS do to safeguard their vacant properties in the future?

There are simple steps that any landlord could take to secure their commercial property should it become unoccupied for any reason.

Firstly, ensure that the building is secure and has an alarm system in place. You could also regularly check for any signs of attempted entry; this would strengthen the security and also mean you can act quickly if there are signs of trespassing

Secondly, review your insurance to make sure it provides cover for intrusion or damage to the property.  Make sure you discuss the measures you need to take to ensure cover, this may highlight the need to remove anything valuable both internally and externally e.g. machinery.

Thirdly, turn off and disconnect all utilities and then regularly check that your utilities have not been reconnected. It is common practice for squatters to contact suppliers and set up new accounts, as this gives them proof that they are paying towards the occupation.

And finally, if you are genuinely concerned that you may attract squatters, explore whether it is feasible to let the property on a temporary trading basis or short-term agreements i.e. 6 months. This will prevent squatting whilst you secure a long-term let that you are happy with.

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