13 June 2012 By Robert Paine MRICS
SQUATTERS RIGHTS !?
Brighton & Hove has always had a history of squatters in both residential and commercial properties since the early 1960s. With the organisation of an international summer gathering of squatters to Brighton, as well as the recent trend for protesters to adopt squatting as a means of campaigning against capitalism (St Paul’s Cathedral, Tesco’s) ‘community garden’ site in Lewes Road, the issue has been pushed onto the national and local headlines.
Whilst moves are underway to criminalise squatting in residential premises no such protection is planned to be given to commercial property owners who are regularly frustrated by the expense and time required to evict squatters and face hefty consequential repair bills.
Commercial owners have to apply for interim possession orders within 28 days of becoming aware of the trespass, and failing to vacate within 24 hours of service of the order constitutes a criminal offence.
The Police are often reluctant to get involved in such cases, as they see this as being a civil matter and difficult to pin any blame on the occupant.
Landlords know that there is extremely little chance to recovering costs from unknown trespassers and as a result are usually left to foot the entire bill for legal costs, bailiffs fees, repairs as well as the considerable costs of instructing a high court enforcement officer.
Squatters have become increasingly more savvy and know to file often spurious defences in order to buy themselves further time.
Commercial property owners will be further discouraged by the recent decision concerning the eviction of the Occupy land protesters from a vacant office building owned by Sun Street Property, the UBS subsidiary. Although UBS ultimately re-obtained possession, the case Sun Street Property Limited v Persons Unknown (2011) highlighted the protracted process involving the victims of trespass of commercial premises in the courts and the need to follow the possession procedure to the letter.
In summary the court held the protesters article 10 Right to Freedom of Expression and assembling association could be exercised anywhere, not necessarily within the UBS building and that UBS was not seeking to prevent the protesters’ expression, just the occupation of their building. The court also held that protesters could not justify taking over a private property just because it was a convenient and effective way of communicating their message.
Within the proposal to make squatting of residential buildings a criminal offence under The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, a person would commit a criminal offence if :
a) A person is in a residential building as a trespasser having entered as a trespasser;
b) A person knows or ought to know that he is a trespasser and
c) A person is living in the building or indeed is intending to live there for any period.
There is increasing concern, that criminalising residential squatting, combined with plans by the Homes & Communities Agency to reduce the number of empty homes even more people could be pushed onto the streets. This may well force greater numbers of homeless people into commercial properties than before.
While the new criminal offence may hearten residential owners, the Government has said that it will not extend the criminal offence to commercial property on the basis that it would be disproportionate to criminalise people who are using dilapidated buildings that are not in use.
Even if there was an offence passed for commercial property, there is doubt that the police could have the necessary resources to deal with the problem, especially given the difficulties on enforcing a criminal offence against continually changing groups of people.
It would be perhaps to be more preferable to simplify the convoluted possession procedure, by allowing commercial property owners to use existing criminal sanctions contained in the criminal law Act 1977 to involve the police directly if a squatter fails to vacate when they are requested to do so.
Commercial owners therefore appear to be left to their own vigilance in tackling the ever increasing risk of squatting to commercial properties. Proactive property management combined with quick and efficient legal action is key to pre-emptying what will be an increasing problem to the streets of Brighton & Hove in the coming years.
Robert Paine MRICS