Squatting was never far from the headlines before the law changed in September 2012 in response to public outrage at home invasions taking place while the occupants were on holiday.
It is now a criminal offence to enter a residential building as a trespasser intending to live there. The offence can lead to six months in prison, a £5,000 fine, or both. Police have powers to help “displaced residential occupiers” regain their property.
Businesses were, though, not helped by the new law. Squatting a non-residential building or land is still not in itself a crime.
Such trespassers may have committed other crimes that enable the police to take action. These range from causing damage when entering the property or while in occupation, to not leaving when told to do so by a court and theft.
Otherwise, the quickest way for a business owner to get their property back is to instruct S J Collections to go to court to arrange for the issuing of an interim possession order, which must be served on the squatters within 24 hours, and to apply for final possession.
You can usually get an interim possession order issued by the County Court within days. Once this order has been served – by attaching one copy to the main door or other prominent part of the building and posting a second through the letterbox if this is possible, both in sealed, transparent envelopes – squatters must leave the property within 24 hours.
Not to do so, or to return to the property within 12 months, is to risk up to six months in prison for a criminal offence.
You do not have to know the names of the squatters to obtain an interim possession order which can be addressed to “the occupants”.
A hearing date for possession can be fixed after S J Collections files a certificate of service at the County Court, saying how and when the documents were served. These documents include a form for the squatters to submit to a court hearing if they oppose the making of an interim order.
There are exceptions to this speedy procedure. A business cannot use an interim order if claiming for damages caused by the squatters. In this case, an owner must make an ordinary claim for possession.
Other exceptions to the use of an interim order are if is more than 28 days since you found out about the squatters, or you are trying to evict former tenants, sub-tenants or licensees. A tenant who falls behind with rent payments is not a squatter.
Headlines have been written about squatters taking ownership of property. This is very rare as they would have to stay in a property for at least 10 years without permission.