A Guide to Recovering Possession from Squatters and Travellers
This brief guide covers the main options available for recovering possession of land from “persons unknown”, commonly involving trespassers or squatters. A squatter is a person who enters into, or remains at, a property as a trespasser without lawful authority or permission to do so from the owner or person with an immediate right to occupation of the property. It is now a criminal offence to squat in a residential property and the police generally react swiftly when required.
Many trespassers and/or squatters are reasonably well informed of the legal and procedural requirements for their eviction, and of their rights once they occupy land and properties. They trade information and template notices to display at properties via the internet. It is therefore important that those with a legal right to occupy properties which are squatted are also well informed of their options.
If your property is squatted, what should you do?
There are various different legal options and procedures for seeking to regain possession of a property, and the quicker that these can be started the better. Peaceable re-entry is often easier whilst the squatters are still establishing themselves.
Do not force entry to the property. It is a criminal offence for any person to use or threaten violence for the purposes of obtaining entry into the premises when they are aware that there is someone present on those premises at that time who is opposed to the entry.
Be careful when negotiating with the squatters. Squatters often seek to negotiate to stay in the property, even if it is for only for a very short period - for example, on the understanding that they will move out after a weekend. Whilst it is tempting to try and be reasonable in the hope that they will leave the property as agreed and without causing damage, such negotiations can be interpreted as the granting of a licence for the squatters to remain at the property, making their eviction more difficult.
Instruct local certificated bailiffs
In the case of travellers, certificated bailiffs can carry out evictions at common law. This can be a quick and cost effective of recovering possession but may fail if the travellers allege a right to occupy and / or deny your entitlement to evict them, or if the land includes residential property. The cost of this procedure will depend upon the number of caravans and vehicles to be removed from the site.
In the case of squatters in wholly commercial property, the landowner (usually via their certificated bailiff) can exercise rights of peaceable re-entry. This involves them or their agent attending the property, entering it without force, and evicting all of the squatters without using any force against them. This method relies upon the squatters leaving an access point (e.g. a door or window) unsecured and being relatively willing to leave the property. It is not therefore always available and there can be difficulties in exercising this remedy.
Most certificated bailiffs will accept instructions by email and will aim to serve eviction notices and remove the travellers within 48 hours. The police may be required to be in attendance.
Contact the local authority
Some local authorities are more proactive in dealing with travellers than others, particularly if the land occupied is highway or public land. Most local authorities will not intervene where the land occupied is privately owned. If steps are not taken by the landowner to recover possession, the local authority may serve an enforcement notice on the landowner requiring the site to be cleared of caravans etc
Notify the Police
The Police have a discretionary power under Section 61 of the Criminal Justice Act 1994 to remove groups where public order issues arise. If the group is known to be troublesome, the police may intervene. Generally speaking, the police do not take action where the land occupied is private land and prefer to require the landowner to take the necessary steps to recover possession.
Bring possession proceedings in the County Court
Special court procedures apply in “squatters claims”, which are intended to be speedy. Typically, possession will be recovered in about two weeks from the date on which you instruct your solicitor as follows:
- A date for the hearing will be set when the claim is issued by the court. Subject to court availability, and assuming that there are no unforeseen circumstances, the hearing can often take place and an order be obtained within a working week of the claim being issued.
- Once issued by the court, the claim and supporting witness statement must be served on the defendants by attaching copies of the claim and witness statement to the land so that they are clearly visible. With open land, this usually involves placing stakes in the land and attaching copies in a sealed transparent envelope.
- At the hearing, the Judge will consider whether a defence is disclosed. It is unusual in cases such as this for Defendants to attend the hearing. In the absence of the Defendants, the Order for possession will usually take effect immediately, although the Court has power to allow Defendants up to 14 days to vacate the land. If possession is not given up in accordance with the order, it will be necessary to instruct the County Court bailiff to evict the occupiers from the site. Alternatively, and often preferably, it is possible to apply to transfer the proceedings up to the High Court for enforcement. This will involve additional expense but if successful, enforcement can be carried out more swiftly by a certificated bailiff.
- Although a successful party will usually be entitled to costs, no costs can be awarded against unnamed Defendants. Costs, therefore, are usually not recoverable.
- Be pro-active. Wherever practicable, do what you can to secure your land - whether through earth mounds, security guards or height barriers.
- Ensure that you liaise with your neighbours to prevent unwanted guests simply moving from your land onto an adjoining or nearby site.
- Take every step to secure your own land from future encroachments. Possession Orders will only bind a particular group of persons unknown. If you are seen as an easy target and a different group moves on to your land, you will have to start the process all over again.