James Rees is an assistant in the property litigation team at Denton Hall.
Over the Christmas period landlords have particular problems with squatters in or on commercial property.
Gypsies or new age travellers occupy open land and squatters take over empty retail premises to do their own Christmas trading.
Squatters can affect trade, damage property, pose health and safety risks (particularly if they are occupying a construction site), upset neighbours and cause problems with regard to vacant possession.
Squatters not only take up the client's valuable management time, but their actions also result in irrecoverable fees – it is rare to recover costs from squatters even if you get an order for costs.
Understandably, the client wants immediate action to be taken to remove the squatters. The civil procedure under Order 113 of the Rules of the Supreme Court is relatively slow and requires two clear days between serving the proceedings and the hearing itself.
If there is a "real danger to life, limb or to property", the Master may expedite matters, although this usually only shortens proceedings by a day.
There is no control over how quickly the sheriff's officers are prepared to act. It usually takes 10 days from receiving instructions to recovering possession.
In extreme cases, it is possible to go before a judge. In one case we were instructed by a client at 6pm who was due to complete the sale of a site the following day by 4.30pm.
We obtained and executed the order by 4pm and the sale went through. However, we had to go before the judge that evening and also the following day, and had a particularly obliging sheriff's officer.
Clients are generally keen to involve the police, who have extensive discretionary powers under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994. However, police authorities usually will not use their powers, citing either lack of resources to concerns about abuse of powers.
What is clear is that police discretions appear to have been generously exercised in the squatters' favour. As a result, clients are left in the frustrating position whereby they are put to expense while squatters use property at no cost knowing full well that they will not be the ones to clear up the mess when they leave.
Until matters change, clients are advised to be extra vigilant at this time of year and to take steps to make their property as secure as possible.
Be particularly on the alert for an old man dressed in red with a white beard – he is quite keen on entry via chimneys!