Warning to commercial property owners over squatters

Commercial property owners in the UK could find their empty or infrequently used property is occupied by squatters due to a change in the law, lawyers are warning.

Since last month squatting in a residential property has become a criminal act and this could lead squatters to target other types of property, according to legal firm Adams & Remers.

‘The advice being given by groups which support squatting now indicates that they are looking to actively target commercial property and their removal from it remains primarily a civil matter and therefore the responsibility of the property owner, who will need to take legal action to recover the property,’ said Simon Janaway, solicitor at Adams & Remers.

‘This is both time consuming and costly to do and whilst the intention behind the new law was to protect home owners, it has pushed the problem towards the business community and there is in many areas a lot of empty commercial property around for squatters to choose from,’ he explained.

‘Property which is both a residential and a commercial property should be considered particularly at risk and groups supporting squatters are advising them to only occupy the parts of the building that are classed as commercial,’ he added.

The firm gives as an example, an empty shop or pub with a flat above it. It is possible that squatters could claim not to be living in the residential part of the building and the police would be powerless to intervene.
The firm points out that it is still a criminal offence to force entry against the wishes of the occupiers so it is up to the owner to ensure the property is secure and cannot be legally accessed as such as through an open or unsecured door or window.

The Ministry of Justice has suggested it will look at improving the current civil remedies and enforcement of existing criminal offences, such as criminal damage and burglary, as a means of dealing with squatting in commercial buildings but no timescale has been put on this.

‘The only option open to the property owner to remove squatters is to obtain and enforce a court order for possession, but this can be expensive. It is also often necessary to use court bailiffs to enforce an order for possession and secure the removal of the squatters. In some situations you can ask the court for an interim possession order and then within 24 hours of this being served the squatters will be committing a criminal offence and may be arrested,’ Janaway pointed out.

‘The situation with empty commercial property is a sad and familiar sight in many towns and cities across the country and this is now a long term issue in many areas and it is likely that the use of many properties will have to change,’ he added.