We are currently in a pandemic which has resulted in some of strictest peace-time measures being imposed on individuals’ freedoms. These restrictions include businesses (save for a specifically identified few) being forced to temporarily close their doors, to assist in preventing the spread of the virus.
There is a risk that with many commercial units being closed, squatters may use this opportunity to occupy commercial premises. Occupying commercial premises is not a criminal offence, and landlords or tenants of commercial premises will require an order from the court to obtain possession and evict the trespassers.
90 day stay of possession proceedings and enforcement possession orders
Part of the Government’s response to the epidemic is that it has put in place laws and procedures to ensure the administration of justice is carried out so as not to endanger public health.
This includes a change in the law that all possession proceedings and enforcement of possession orders are stayed for a period of 90 days from 26 March 2020. The intention behind this change is self-evident; the Government does not wish for individuals or families to be evicted from their homes in a time when the public is being told to stay at home, access to temporary accommodation is unavailable and evicting individuals or families may increase the risk of spreading COVID-19 or themselves getting the virus from being unable to stay at home.
However, the stay of 90 days also applies to possession proceedings in respect of commercial premises, as well as the enforcement of orders for possession which have already been granted by a court.
This means that whilst a landlord or a tenant who finds squatters unlawfully occupying their premises, can issue possession proceedings at the court, they will have to wait until the expiry of the 90 day stay before the claim can be pursued. After the expiry of the stay, with a back-log to deal with and depleted staffing levels, there is likely to be a delay by the court in dealing with a claim. It is, therefore, vital that steps are taken now to secure commercial premises to prevent squatters gaining access and occupying commercial premises.
Landlords or tenants may have the ability to obtain an injunction to have the squatters removed on the grounds that they are causing a nuisance, but there is no guarantee that an injunction will be granted.
Securing your premises
Tenants of commercial units must ensure that their units are secure, in order to prevent them from being occupied by squatters. It would be wise for landlords to be proactive in this respect too. Whilst it may be the responsibility of a tenant to ensure its premises are secure, a landlord will not want squatters to access premises which it has let or parts of a property, or an estate, which remain the landlord’s responsibility, such as a common parts or unlet units.
Landlords and tenants should:
1. Ensure all alarms are set;
2. Ensure all windows and doors are securely locked and, if appropriate, put additional locks in place;
3. Consider whether windows of empty premises should be are boarded up;
4. Check the premises for signs of forced entry;
5. Carry out repair works to hoarding, fire escapes and other doors which squatters may be able to use to gain access to a building;
Landlords and tenants should check their insurance policies in respect of securing their premises to ensure the obligations contained in their policies are being complied with.
The Government has asked landlords and tenants to work together, and this cooperation should not be limited to a tenant’s ability to pay rent as a result of this pandemic, but should also extend to protecting common interests including the security of commercial premises.
A landlord or tenant of commercial premises will want to avoid any additional disruption to their businesses during this already difficult time, and should therefore ensure that their premises are safe and secure to prevent any opportunistic squatters unlawfully occupying their premises.