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.

What is (and isn't) squatting?

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.

Is squatting in non-residential buildings a crime?

Squatting in non-residential properties or land is generally not considered a crime. 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

What are squatters rights (and how can these be challenged)?

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.

How can squatters be removed?

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).