The new criminal offence doesn't cover commercial properties, but solicitor David Marsden has some advice for safeguarding your premises
A squatter has entered your property and is claiming squatters' rights and refusing to leave.
Squatting in a residential building in England and Wales became a criminal offence on 1 September. The offence does not apply to commercial property, open land or previous tenants.
The police have the power to enter and search a residential building and arrest anyone found to be squatting. The maximum penalty for the offence is six months imprisonment, a £5,000 fine or both.
The offence is committed when a person is in a residential building as a trespasser and that person knows or ought to know that they are a trespasser, and the person is living in the building or intends to live there for any period.
A "residential building" is any structure or part of a structure which has been designed or adapted for use as a place to live. This includes temporary or moveable structures such as caravans.
If commercial landowners find squatters on their property and are unable to persuade them to leave, legal action will be necessary. The options available are as follows:
● Apply to court for an Interim Possession Order (IPO) for service on the squatters, with a request that they leave the property within 24 hours of being served. If they do not leave, they are committing a criminal offence and may be arrested; or
● Apply to court for possession of the property.
For hotel owners the key issue in relation to the new law is whether a hotel is deemed to be a residential or commercial building.
Although the new law has not yet been challenged in the courts, it is unlikely that a hotel would fall under the definition of "residential" property, given its commercial purpose, despite the fact that there is a residential element to the business.
Hotels, boarding or guest houses and hostels are also not recognised as residential properties and do not fall under class C2 (residential institutions) or class C3 (dwelling houses) of the Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) Order 1987.
Given that the new law applies only to residential buildings, it is perhaps not going to be as helpful to hotel owners as might be hoped.
Judicial interpretation of the legislation may mean that, in the future, a hotel might in some circumstances be considered to be a "residential" building, but this remains to be seen. Even if a hotel was a residential building, a hotel owner would not be able to use the new act against a guest residing in a hotel and refusing to leave, because they did not enter the property with the intention to trespass.
Ask the squatters to leave, but do not use or threaten violence. If that fails, contact your local police station for assistance. If they cannot assist, instruct solicitors, who will be able to act as set out above.
Preventing squatters in commercial buildings
Property owners should:
● Keep their properties secure when unoccupied.
● Consider using security measures when a property is both let and vacant.
● Undertake measures to give the appearance of occupation at all times.
● Use timed lights, blinds, etc.
● Arrange for third parties, such as cleaners or security guards, to make regular visits to the property.
If a commercial property is left unoccupied for a long time, owners might consider letting it on a short-term temporary trading basis.
David Marsden is a partner at Charles Russell