The controversial and much debated Squatters Rights Laws have, as of 31st September 2012, been amended to offer more protection to property owners. First introduced in section 6 of the Criminal Law Act 1977, the laws were designed to prevent landlords from evicting tenants by use of violence or force. They dictate that anyone gaining entry to a property against the wishes of the occupier, including the owner of the property, is in most instances committing a criminal offence.
Whilst the intentions of the Squatters Rights Laws may have been honourable, they have meant that the homeless have been able to take advantage of unoccupied properties and a report by charity Crisis in 2011 revealed that 39% of homeless people had resorted to squatting at some point. In order to lawfully remove squatters, landlords have been left facing a legal process that can costs thousands and take months. Until now that is.
Understanding the new law
The changes to the law mean that evicting squatters can now be done much more rapidly. The Police now have the power to raid a property where they believe squatters are living, before removing them. Guidance has been issued to the law enforcement agencies by the Ministry of Justice, advising on the changes:
“The new offence will make it more difficult for trespassers to assert they have rights in respect of residential buildings because their occupation of the building will be a criminal act”.
The fact that squatting is no longer seen as a civil matter means that squatters could face the possibility of charges being brought against them. This could result in up to 6 months in prison, a maximum fine of £5,000, or even both. Whilst the ability to evict squatters more easily represents good news for residential landlords, it does pose issues for owners of commercial property.
Out in the cold
Government figures estimate that that are around 20,000 squatters across the UK, with related squatting organisations putting the figures much higher. Whatever the true figure is, there is now suddenly a lot of homeless people looking for somewhere to shelter from the elements. Most worrying for owners of commercial property is the fact that the new laws do not cover non-residential properties, making them an obvious target for potential squatters.
However, there is a growing campaign for the new laws to be extended to commercial property to protect landlords in the same way. The movement is especially gathering pace in Kent, after an empty village pub was taken over by squatters. Whether the government takes notice of the support for an extension to the law remains to be seen.
Protecting commercial property
If you own commercial property then it is now more important than ever to ensure that it is thoroughly protected from the risk of squatters. Obviously the key concern here is ensuring that potential trespassers are unable to gain access to the building. An alarm system is a must and additional door and window covers are advisable, with steel bars or roller shutters being the most effective. You may even wish to consider asking a security firm to keep an eye on it and include it as part of their regular route.
Article is provided courtesy of Eddisons commercial property specialists.