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COVID-19: Squatters’ rights averted

Legislation to prevent landlords from evicting their tenants during the Covid-19 pandemic has been amended says commercial property agent Prop-Search, as it inadvertently prevented claims against trespassers.

Practice Direction 51Z was introduced on 27 March 2020 and had the effect of largely putting on hold all possession proceedings brought under Part 55 of the Civil Procedure Rules until 25 June 2020.   As well as protecting residential and business tenants in line with Government policy, the objective was to halt the progress of evictions during the pandemic so as not to endanger public health and in recognition of limited court resources during this time.

Simon Toseland, a Director of Prop-Search, said: “One of the more startling consequences of the Practice Direction, as originally drafted, was that it also prevented claims against trespassers progressing through the courts until 25 June 2020.”

An urgent amendment to the Practice Direction has now been introduced to close this surely unintended loophole.  The general stay on possession proceedings has been amended to clarify that the stay does not apply to a claim against trespassers.

Owners and occupiers of commercial property who have been victims of squatting know the high price in terms of time and cost of removing trespassers.  The eviction process can be costly and there can be significant damage to the property to deal with after trespassers are removed.

Prop-Search advises that anyone responsible, whether as owner or tenant of unoccupied commercial premises, should wherever possible take steps to secure their property against potential trespassers in the first place, where it is safe to do so.  This is particularly relevant with so many commercial premises currently empty during the lockdown.

Simon Toseland added: “Those affected by squatters on commercial premises might be able to avail themselves of self-help remedies to remove trespassers through bailiffs.  There are likely to be real challenges for bailiffs operating at this time, where removal of trespassers might require close physical contact.”

“In the pre-lockdown world in some circumstances the police might have been prepared to assist with the removal of trespassers from commercial property.  However, in current times the police may prefer that people are not moved on and will also be facing resourcing issues and have different priorities, so may be less likely to assist.”

Thursday, May 21, 2020