What are Squatters’ Rights?

mariam-abu-hussein
Mariam Abu HusseinLegal Assessment Specialist @ Lawhive
Updated on 16th November 2023

If you’re a landlord, knowing and understanding the law on squatting will protect your interests and help you with evicting squatters, without breaking the law.

If you're a squatter, you may be in a desperate position, and want to know how the law can help you. It is important for you to be aware of where and when squatting is illegal and what you can do to keep a roof over your head.

what-are-squatters’-rights

This article explores the legal principles and rights associated with squatters within a property.

We cover: 

  • The legal definition of squatting

  • When squatting is illegal

  • If a squatter can take ownership of a property

  • How to prevent squatters as a landlord

  • If police can remove squatters

What is squatting?

If you are a landlord, It’s important to understand the legal definition of squatting, as naturally, you will want to do something about this difficult issue.

According to squatting law:

“squatting is when someone deliberately enters property without permission and lives there or intends to live there”.

This is sometimes known as ‘adverse possession’.

It is important to note that if someone enters your property legally, they are not a squatter. For instance, if you have a renter that can’t pay their bills.

Landlords should be aware that tenants that continue to live in their property with unpaid bills are not legally squatters and could be deemed as an illegal eviction if you try to make them leave the property.

Read our handy guide on how to evict a tenant legally if this is a problem you are facing.

If you are a squatter and you have nowhere to live, you may be able ask your local council for help. Get more advice from Citizens Advice on this issue.

Is squatting against the law?

Squatting in a residential house or building is illegal and can lead to a fine of £5,000, six months imprisonment, and sometimes both.

Squatting in non-residential buildings however is not a crime. Non-residential buildings serve commercial, industrial, or other non-domestic purposes. They include commercial buildings (e.g. offices); industrial buildings; places of worship; and public buildings, amongst others.

However, it is a crime if you damage the property or you refuse to leave when asked by: 

  • The owner

  • The police

  • The council

  • A repossession order

What are squatters’ rights?

Squatters' rights is a term many may have a hazy understanding of. You might have seen police presence at a building attempting to remove squatters or heard it in connection to a news story about squatters refusing to leave a building they’re occupying. The fact is that squatters do have certain rights under the law

Squatters' rights refer to the legal principle of adverse possession, allowing individuals to claim ownership of land or property if they have occupied it without the owner's permission for a specified period. The Land Registration Act 2002 and the Criminal Law Act 1977 both cover squatters' rights and what is and isn't allowed.

The key elements of the law surrounding squatters' rights are:

  1. Adverse Possession:

    • Squatters may get legal ownership of a property through adverse possession if they have continuously occupied it without the owner's permission for a specific period of time (usually 10 or 12 years).

  2. Land Registration Act 2002:

    • The Land Registration Act 2002 controls adverse possession and aims to strike a balance between the rights of property owners and the interests of those in possession. It outlines the conditions and procedures for claiming adverse possession.

  3. Required Period of Occupation:

    • Squatters must occupy the property for a continuous and uninterrupted period, typically a minimum of 10 or 12 years, to be eligible to apply for adverse possession.

  4. Open and Notorious Possession:

    • The possession must be open and notorious, meaning that it is not hidden, and the squatter behaves as if they were the rightful owner.

  5. Land Registration:

    • If the property is registered with the Land Registry, the adverse possessor may apply for registration as the new legal owner after the required period of occupation.

  6. Not Applicable to Registered Owners:

    • Adverse possession rights do not apply to registered owners who are already on the Land Registry. The registered owner can take action to prevent adverse possession.

  7. Good Faith Occupation:

    • If the squatter occupied the property in good faith (without knowledge of the true owner), the period required for adverse possession may be shorter.

Can squatters legally take ownership of a property?

Yes, a long-term squatter can become the legal and registered owner of a building or land without the permission of its owner. This is known as 'adverse possession'.

If you are a landlord, the main area of the law you need to be aware of is when squatters apply for ownership. Under the law, squatters can apply for ownership of a property they have lived at for over ten years (in some cases up to 60 years)

A squatter will need to apply to the Land Registry, who will get in touch with the property owner to let them know that a squatter is asserting their right to claim ownership of a building. It is then the choice of the owner whether approve the request or not. If they do approve the request, the squatter becomes the new owner.

Squatter’s Rights also protect a squatter from being unlawfully evicted -this includes forceful eviction. A squatter also has the right to prevent forced entry by anyone without legal authority.

If you are a squatter, you should know that property owners are becoming increasingly savvy about squatter’s rights and are making more claims for eviction.

How to stop squatters

There are many ways landlords can stop squatters from occupying their property before resorting to the law.

If your building is unoccupied and you think it likely that squatters may move in, there are some preventive measures you can turn to. 

Clear warning signs on the exterior of an abandoned or unoccupied building can prevent squatters from moving in. Place them on all the doors and windows of your building for maximum visibility and optics. Make sure you include the legal consequences of squatting to appeal to squatters' better judgement and stop them entering your property in the first place.

Check the property regularly

You should check your property regularly. It should be pretty obvious if squatters have moved in and if not, you could always ask someone in the area if they’ve heard noise from the property or seen anyone around.

If you don’t live close to your property, you can hire a property manager to look after your building. Alternatively, ask a friend or relative to keep an eye on the property.

Appoint a quality estate agent

Squatters usually only occupy buildings that have been empty long term. This is because it gives a good indication that it will remain empty. To counter this, don’t let your property stay empty for long periods. You can ensure this by staying on top of the marketing of your property. Appoint estate agents with a good reputation that you trust and stay in contact with them regularly

As a landlord, you can use an interim possession order (IPO) or make a claim for possession

You can only apply for an IPO if it has been 28 days or less since you discovered that squatters were occupying your property. 

You’ll need to fill in an application for an IPO, and send it to your local county court when you’ve filled it in.

The court will acknowledge that they’ve received your documents within a few days. You’ll then receive documents that you must hand over to any squatters within 48 hours. 

When legally notified, squatters will have to leave the property within 48 hours, and stay away for 12 months. If they do not, they could be imprisoned. 

What is a warrant for possession?

If it has been more than 28 days since squatters entered the property, you will need to make a claim for possession. Do this on your IPO application, or on Gov.uk.

This warrant is executed by court-appointed bailiffs, who have the authority to physically remove the squatters from the property.

Remember, you cannot use force or threats to remove squatters - if you do this, it is an offence and you will be committing a crime. 

Can police remove squatters?

The police generally do not have the authority to remove squatters from a property. The process of dealing with squatters is primarily a civil matter, and property owners need to follow legal procedures as listed above to regain possession of their property.

While the police may not remove squatters directly, they may be involved in situations where there is a breach of the peace or criminal activities associated with squatting. In such cases, the police can take action to address the criminal aspects of the situation, but the removal of squatters would likely still be conducted through the appropriate legal channels.

Police can’t remove squatters if they enter the property with the owner's permission, for example if a renter is refusing to leave after getting behind on rent. In this case, the landlord must give notice and typically go to court to evict the tenant. 

As mentioned earlier, squatters' rights don’t apply to commercial buildings, so there are other laws to enable and support commercial landlords to get possession of their building back.

We can support you with a free assessment

If you need any help with squatters’ rights and understanding your position in terms of rights to property and property law, get a free case assessment and no obligation quote today to see how we can help.

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