Squatters

The laws relating to squatting have a long history and can be surprising to people who are unfamiliar with this issue. It's important for property and land owners, as well as squatters themselves, to understand their rights and obligations.

Squatting - also known as 'adverse possession' - refers to the act of someone deliberately entering property (or land) which they do not own and without permission from the legal owner (ie trespassing), with the intention of living there (or actually living there).

If someone originally enters a property with permission of the owner and later does not leave (eg a tenant who has fallen behind on rent) this will generally not be considered squatting.

Squatting in residential properties is illegal and can result in a £5,000 fine and/or 6 months in prison.

Squatting in non-residential properties or land is generally not considered a crime in England and Wales. However, there are other crimes associated with squatting in non-residential properties, including:

  • causing any damage to the property (eg when entering)
  • stealing anything from the property (including using utilities such as water and electricity)
  • failing to leave the property if instructed to do so by a court

In Scotland squatting in any private property, without the property owner’s consent is, is considered a crime.

This only applies in England and Wales

Long term squatters can eventually become the registered owner of a property if they (or a succession of squatters) have occupied it continuously for 10 years (or 12 years if it is unregistered). They need to prove that they acted as owners of the property throughout this period and that they did not have the owner's permission (eg they did not originally rent it from the owner).

If squatters apply for adverse possession (ie attempt to register ownership) of registered property, the Land Registry will inform the existing owner, who then has 65 days to object. A valid objection will result in the rejection of the squatter's application - but action must then be taken to remove squatters and reclaim the property (otherwise it is more likely that a subsequent application for adverse possession will succeed).

The Land Registry may be unable to inform the owner of unregistered property which is subject to an adverse possession application. Unlike with registered land, the unregistered property owner's objection to an adverse possession claim is not automatic; negotiation with the squatters may be necessary and a tribunal may need to decide if an agreement cannot be reached.

England and Wales

In order to legally remove squatters, property owners must apply for an Interim Possession Order (IPO) within 28 days of discovering that their property is being squatted in. Once confirmation of the IPO has been made, the court will provide documents which must be served on the squatters within 48 hours. If squatters have not left within 24 hours of being served an IPO - or if they return within 12 months - they can be sent to prison. Following an IPO, the property owner must then make a claim for possession.

If they have missed the 28 day deadline for an IPO application, they will need to make a claim for possession in the first instance (which can slow things down).

Scotland

In order to legally remove squatters, property owners must bring a Summary Cause action in their local Sheriff Court. The property owner can bring a claim against a person in possession of property without any rights or titles with regards to the property. There is no need to name the squatters as such an action can be brought against an unnamed occupier.

The Summary Cause action requires a hearing before a Sheriff as it allows for a shortened notice period, which is granted at the Sheriff’s sole discretion. Where the reduced notice period (often 48 hours) is granted, the Sheriff Clerk will assign a return date (the date by which the squatter must give written notice of any proposed defence) and calling date (the date of the second hearing - usually given as a few days after the return date).

The Sheriff Officers will then, before the return date, serve the summons on the squatter by affixing a copy of the summons at the entrance, exit and middle of the property. The hearing will then take place on the calling date, and a Sheriff may grant a decree. At the discretion of the Sheriff, such a decree may be granted immediately (known as an ‘immediate extract’), which allows a Sheriff Officer to evict the squatter immediately (without having to wait for 14 days).