A disused victorian building. Guarding your boundaries: what to do when you have unwanted visitors

Guarding your boundaries: what to do when you have unwanted visitors

Jack Crown, Associate in the Russell-Cooke Solicitors, property litigation team.
Jack Crown
4 min Read

Associate Jack Crown explores the preventative measures property owners can take and the legal remedies available for addressing trespass.

As hybrid working and the decline of high street shopping have led to more vacant buildings, property owners face the dual challenge of securing their assets and addressing the legal and financial implications of unauthorised occupation, as Gordon Ramsey recently discovered when his York & Albany pub became occupied by squatters. 

Prevention is better than cure

Property owners should consider whether they are doing enough to keep vacant land and buildings secure. Property guardians are a popular choice but can lead to difficulties when the guardians themselves outstay their welcome and this can potentially require the licensing of a property as a House in Multiple Occupation. Physical security measures such as shutters, cameras and alarms can help but determined squatters will usually find a way in. Employing security guards may be appropriate in certain cases but that is likely to be an expense that property owners can do without. Open and park land may be virtually impossible to secure. 

Against those costs and difficulties must be weighed not only the costs and time involved in removing the squatters but the risk of damage to the property, littering, theft of items and use of utilities if unwanted visitors do find a way in. Some groups of squatters have been known to deposit large quantities of construction waste on land they have unlawfully occupied leading to astronomical clean-up costs. 

The thin blue line

There are a range of legal remedies available to remove trespassers. At a basic level, the squatters may have committed one of a number of offences such as criminal damage or squatting in residential premises. The police also have powers to remove trespassers who have gone into occupation of open land with vehicles where they have caused damage, disruption or distress. 

The police will often be the landowner’s first port of call but resources are stretched and they are not able to assist in all cases. They will often say that there isn’t sufficient evidence to support using police powers or declare that it is a ‘civil matter’. 

Possession proceedings

If the police cannot or will not assist, landowners can issue a possession claim at court. Issuing the claim in the High Court is likely to get the property back much more quickly than in the county court, but the landowner will need to show exceptional circumstances, such as if there is a substantial risk of public disturbance or serious harm to property or persons. 

If the trespassers do not vacate the property when ordered to do so then the order must be enforced by one of two methods. In the County Court, a warrant of possession must be obtained and enforced by Court bailiffs. This process can take several weeks or months, depending on how busy the Court is, but has the advantage that it only requires the payment of a nominal court fee. If speed is required, it is usually possible to apply for the transfer of the enforcement of the possession order to the High Court. This is usually much quicker but the fees will be higher.

An alternative process is to seek an interim possession order. This has the advantage of being very fast but involves a more complicated and expensive court procedure. The interim order, made at an early hearing, can be enforced by the police but the landowner must undertake not to damage the property or let it to someone else pending a final hearing. The landowner may have to reinstate the occupiers to the property and pay them damages if it is found at the second hearing that the interim order should not have been made. Act quickly: this route is only available where the application to court is made within 28 days of the when the claimant first knew, or ought to have reasonably known of the presence of the trespassers.

If landowners find that their land is regularly squatted, they may consider that an injunction should be sought, preventing occupation by unauthorised groups. Issues relating to that sort of application were considered recently by the Supreme Court in Wolverhampton City Council v London Gypsies [2023].  

Landowners should ensure that their property is monitored regularly so that they are swiftly aware of any incursions and take steps to keep the property as secure as possible. If occupation by trespassers does materialise, there are legal remedies available to landowners to prevent it occurring or resolve it and obtain vacant possession. It is always beneficial to obtain legal advice as quickly as possible. 

Jack Crown is in the property litigation team and advises on all types of property dispute resolution, including for example break notices, commercial rent arrears, dilapidations, forfeiture, along with residential landlord and tenant claims. Jack also advises on disputes involving trespass, nuisance, building works, misrepresentation, rights of way and adverse possession. 

Get in touch

If you would like to speak with a member of the team you can contact our property litigation solicitors by email, by telephone on +44 (0)20 3826 7525 or complete our enquiry form.

Briefings Property litigation Homepage news items unwanted visitors property owners vacant buildings unauthorised occupation trespass vacant land secure buildings House in Multiple Occupation squatters trespassers residential premises landowner possession proceedings bailiffs interim possession order Wolverhampton City Council v London Gypsies [2023] Gordon Ramsey York & Albany pub Jack Crown