Squatting in residential properties was made a criminal offence in 2012 and carries a maximum penalty of six months’ imprisonment and a fine of up to £5,000. However, the reality is that convictions are rare and one might argue that this points to the success of the legislation. Certainly, front page headlines describing people returning home from holiday to discover that squatters have moved into their homes are now uncommon but, in our view, the failure to cover commercial premises in the legislation has largely moved the problem to a different arena.
Prevention is always better than cure and our first tip is to ensure vacant properties are suitably secured so as to avoid the possibility of squatting taking place. However, even secure properties face the risk of squatting and according to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government there were 605,891 reported vacant dwellings across England in 2017. There are clearly significant opportunities for squatters and the reality is that removing them can be a very difficult, time consuming and expensive process.
It is important to be aware that even though squatting in a residential property is a criminal offence, any attempt by the property owner to physically remove them should be resisted (however tempting this might be). Squatters know their legal rights very well and will not hesitate to call the police to assist them. In fact, the first thing a property owner should do when they become aware of squatters is to call the police themselves as, provided the police can find evidence that the squatters are unauthorised occupiers (i.e. because they have forced entry), they can immediately remove them.
However, the crucial point is that squatters are often extremely well organised and know how to manipulate the situation to prevent forced removal by the police. In many instances, the squatters will leave no sign of having forced entry and will claim that they are legitimate tenants (or have some other right to occupy the property). In that situation our experience is that the police will leave the property without taking further action and will simply declare that it is a civil matter. This is extremely frustrating for the wronged property owner but one can understand the police, with limited time and resources, taking this approach; after all they are not there to decide whether the occupier is a legitimate tenant/authorised occupier or a squatter. If the police are unable to act then it will then fall to the property owner to pursue civil action against the squatters through the courts in order to obtain possession.