We are currently in a pandemic which has resulted in the 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 COVID-19.
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 squatters.
90 day stay of possession proceedings and enforcement possession orders does not include actions against squatters
My previous article commented how the Government’s response included measures which stayed all possession proceedings and the enforcement of possession orders for 90 days, and I explained how this would prevent landlords or tenants from taking action against squatters to seek to have them removed.
The Master of the Rolls has amended these measures to enable a landlord or tenant who finds squatters unlawfully occupying their premises to start possession proceedings against those squatters.
The 90 day stay of possession proceedings and enforcement of possession orders referred to in my previous article no longer relates to actions against squatters.
Whilst this is a welcomed change, the reality remains that with courts being closed, and those which remain open are operating with a depleted level of staff, any claims issued are likely to take longer than usual to process, which will delay in an order being granted to remove the squatters.
The amendments do not change the guidance for landlords and tenants to ensure their premises are secured to prevent opportunistic squatters from unlawfully occupying those premises.
Securing your premises
Tenants of commercial units must ensure that their units are secure, 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:
- Ensure all alarms are set;
- Ensure all windows and doors are securely locked and, if appropriate, put additional locks in place;
- Consider whether windows of empty premises should be are boarded up;
- Check the premises for signs of forced entry;
- 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.
Whilst a landlord or tenant has regained the ability to take court action against squatters, 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 secured to prevent any opportunistic squatters unlawfully occupying their premises.