What is squatting?
Squatting is where someone has entered a property without first obtaining permission from the owner, and then stays there, or intends to stay there.
The current law on squatting varies, depending on whether the building or land being occupied is residential or non-residential.
Squatting in a residential property
In 2012, it became a criminal offence under section 144 of the LASPO to trespass in residential buildings such as flats or houses, with intent to live there. Squatting can lead to six months’ imprisonment, a £5,000 fine, or in some cases, both.
For squatting laws to apply, the person must have entered the property without the permission of the owner.
Anyone who legally enters a residential property with permission of the landlord, as a tenant for example, is not considered to be squatting if they then fall behind with rental payments. In those cases, the landlord will need to follow the correct procedure for ending the tenancy and legally removing the tenant or licensee from the property.
In cases where the squatter has come across an empty home or flat and then moved in, they can be arrested for squatting, if:
- They didn’t get the permission of the owner to live there.
- They entered the property without permission.
- They knew, or should have known, they were trespassing.
The current laws on squatting also apply to temporary or movable property, like caravans or mobile homes.
Squatting in non-residential property
A non-residential property is defined as any building or land that is not designed to be lived in or on.
It is not a criminal offence to squat in non-residential buildings, or where there has been an agreement.
However, property owners have the right to bring a civil matter against squatters for eviction but are prohibited by law from using threats or violence to force entry into an occupied property or to remove squatters.
Police can take action if crimes are committed by the squatters when entering or staying in the property or on land, including:
- Damaging the property when entering it
- Causing damage to the property whilst staying there
- Refusing to leave when told to do so by a court order
- Stealing from the property
- Using energy supplies such as gas or electricity without permission
- Fly-tipping on the land
- Failing to comply with a noise abatement notice
The police have powers to enter and search premises if they suspect squatting is taking place and can arrest those suspected of living there.
What are squatters’ rights?
Under current laws, squatters retain the following rights:
- The right to remain connected to a utility supply. Although the squatter must contact the supplier before using any utility otherwise this could be considered theft.
- The right to oppose forcible entry from anyone other than court-appointed bailiffs or the police. Forcible entry includes breaking in by forcing a door or window, even if this is by the property owner.
- The right not to be threatened with violence.
- The right to apply for legal ownership of the property via ‘adverse possession’.
A long-term squatter can become the registered owner of the land or property they have occupied without the owner’s permission, if:
- They can prove they, or a succession of squatters, have occupied the property continuously for ten years if registered land, or twelve years if the land is unregistered.
- They, or their predecessors, acted as the owners of the property for the whole of that time.
- They, or any of their predecessors, did not have the owner’s permission. For example, the property was not originally rented to a squatter.
The only exception to this rule, is if the property owner can prove they themselves are displaced, meaning they will be homeless unless they can get back into their home, or if their tenant has documentation proving they should occupy and are being made homeless by the presence of the squatters. In such cases, the property owner is within their rights to force entry without a court order, although best practice dictates obtaining legal advice or police support.
If the property is registered
The squatter needs to complete a form for adverse possession, then complete and sign a written ‘statement of truth’ and send everything to HM Land Registry in Gloucester. The Land Registry will consider the application and, if it is valid, they will inform the property owner of their decision and give them 65 days to object. Broadly speaking, in cases where the owner objects, an application will automatically be rejected.
A squatter can reapply after two years, where:
- The owner has not tried to remove the squatter
- The owner has not reclaimed the property
- The squatter remains in possession of the property
On the flip side, if there are no objections raised from the property owner, the squatter will be registered as the new owner.
If the property is unregistered, in order to obtain ownership, a squatter must complete and sign a written ‘statement of truth’ and apply to HM Land Registry in Gloucester for a first registration. HM Land Registry will:
- Inspect the property – there is a fee for this
- Adjudicate upon whether an application is valid
- Inform the property owner (if they hold their details)
A squatter can try to come to an agreement with the property owner if they object, however in cases which cannot be agreed, HM Land Registry will arrange a Land Tribunal to determine who owns the property. The Squatter may have to pay the property owner’s costs, such as reasonable expenses or legal fees, despite either success in securing the property or failure.
A squatter can be removed using an interim possession order (IPO) or by making a claim for possession. A property owner can only apply for an IPO if it has been 28 days or fewer since they found out about the property being used by squatters. After being served with an IPO, squatters can be imprisoned if they do not leave the property within 24 hours and stay away from the property for 12 months.
To obtain a final possession, an owner must make a claim for possession, this can either be done on the IPO application form, or separately online. An IPO cannot be used for any claim of damages, instead an ordinary claim for possession should be applied for. It also cannot be used in cases where a landlord is trying to evict former tenants, sub-tenants, or licensees.
Removing Squatters during Coronavirus
Following the Coronavirus Act (2020), the courts suspended all ongoing possession actions except those regarding trespassers or squatters. Meaning that squatter proceedings can continue.
That said, it can still be difficult to obtain urgent injunctive relief, and one of the key issues a property owner needs to consider is who the proceedings are to be issued against. Squatters can be difficult to identify or unknown by name, making it harder to obtain an injunction. During lockdown, courts have been stricter when granting injunctions against ‘persons unknown’ and now require the claimant (usually the property owner) to point to a class of persons set out in two broad categories:
- Anonymous defendants who can be identified but whose names are unknown. The most obvious class of persons here will be squatters, who can be identified by their address (the property subject to squatting) but cannot be named; and
- Defendants who are not just anonymous but also unnamed, such as a hit-and-run driver
If a squatter has been removed from a property and does not have anywhere to live, their local authority may be able to re-house them or help them find somewhere to stay. This is particularly important during the coronavirus lockdown where a local authority has a duty to shelter those who cannot self-isolate.
A squatter is likely to be considered in priority need for emergency housing if they have been identified as ‘extremely vulnerable’ because of a medical condition. A local authority may also decide the squatter is in immediate priority need because their health or age make them vulnerable to coronavirus.
Athough six months’ imprisonment and/or a £5,000 fine acts as a significant deterrent to residential squatting, making an empty property unappealing in some way or inaccessible may prevent them further. There are simple strategies a property owner can employ to retain a property’s lived-in look, such as:
- Use time switches to set lights, or perhaps a radio to come on at specific times of the day or night
- Redirecting or stopping post so there is no telltale pile up inside the front door
- Getting neighbours to use the drive for their own car or put out the bins. This gives the impression that daily routines are ongoing
- Adding deadlocks to doors and windows, or any other point that is vulnerable to entry.
- Consider adding steel security screens to doors and/or windows which, although identify a property as empty, make it virtually impossible to gain it. This is particularly important where properties will be empty for longer periods of time
- Secure perimeter gates with heavy duty chains and padlocks
- Install alarm systems, ideally monitored and responded to quickly or cameras that record any attempts to break in that can be used for evidence and identification if necessary
- Adding plants (artificial or real, depending on your own time commitments) as a sign of occupation
- Keep any gardens trimmed and tidy, to prevent that overgrown look identifying empty properties
- If the property is likely to be empty for a significant period, ensuring you inform the energy supplier and potentially cut those supplies off in the interim
- Regularly visiting the property to make checks. Whilst there add to signs of occupancy by moving things around, opening windows, closing blinds or curtains, for example.
- Informing neighbours’ the property will be empty is an excellent way to ensure someone keeps watch. Give them contact numbers in the event of problems arising.
Longer term vacancies
Sometimes, properties can be empty for a longer period, such as when waiting for planning permission to be granted or for probate to go through. In these cases, the property needs to be fully secured against opportunistic break-ins, and this is where installation of steel security screening measures may be required.
Although there is a valid argument that such measures are a red flag to squatters of an empty property, they are fully tamper-proof, and any attempt to remove them provides immediate evidence of illegal entry. Evidential proof of this nature will be essential in any ensuing court case and/or any insurance claims and can only assist.
Squatting law FAQs
Is squatting illegal?
Squatting in residential property or land is illegal and is punishable by a 6-month term of imprisonment, a fine of £5,000, or both. Squatting on non-residential land or property is not illegal, however, there are several arrestable offences that a squatter should be aware could cause a criminal record or fine, such as criminal damage. However, a long-term squatter can become the registered owner of property or land, proving they meet certain eligibility criteria.
How long can you squat in a house before it becomes yours?
If property or land has been lived in, or on, without the owner’s permission continuously for a specified period, then the property can be claimed by the squatter or their predecessors. If the land or property is registered, then the qualifying period is ten years’ continuous use, or twelve years if the land is unregistered.
What are the rules for squatting?
Squatting laws changed in 2012, making it quicker and easier for an owner to remove squatters from their property. A squatter’s only remaining rights include the right to remain connected to a utility supply, the right to oppose forcible entry from anyone other than court-appointed bailiff’s or the police, the right not to be threatened with violence, and the right to apply for legal ownership of the property via ‘adverse possession’.
The matters contained in this article are intended to be for general information purposes only. This article does not constitute legal advice, nor is it a complete or authoritative statement of the law, and should not be treated as such. Whilst every effort is made to ensure that the information is correct, no warranty, express or implied, is given as to its accuracy and no liability is accepted for any error or omission. Before acting on any of the information contained herein, expert legal advice should be sought.