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Automatic stay in squatter possession proceedings removed

30 April 2020

Pressure from property litigation professionals has seen the Master of the Rolls modify the automatic stay in all possession proceedings, imposed on 26 March by a Practice Direction, when the claim is for possession of a property occupied by a person or persons who have entered or remained on property as trespassers. It accepts that the Practice Direction was broader than the Coronavirus Act intended and removes the unintended consequence of a “licence to trespass”.

In a joint letter sent on 8 April The Property Bar Association (PBA) and Property Litigation Association (PLA), of which property litigation Partner Nick Cox is a long-standing member,  wrote to the Master of the Rolls to request that the automatic stay on possession proceedings until 26 June be reviewed. The legislation refers to suspension of residential possession proceedings, not those relating to the former tenants of commercial premises or squatters. Yet the Practice Direction to implement the Act stayed all possessions brought under Part 55 of the Civil Procedure Rules.

The concern was that trespassers would continue to remain unlawfully on premises and owners may have decided to exercise their common law right to remove occupiers, creating further frustration and friction.

In the letter, signed by Joanne Wicks QC (Chair of the Property Bar Association) and Matthew Ditchburn (Chair of the Law Reform Committee of the Property Litigation Association), the professional associations noted that “…the relevant species of residential tenancy, and the protections afforded such tenants – principally by the extension of notice periods – are set out in Schedule 29 to the CA 2020 (Coronavirus Act 2020). The CA 2020 does not, therefore, protect squatters from eviction, and the Practice Direction goes beyond the circumstances for which Parliament has seen fit to legislate.”

From a commercial property perspective, they added that the CA 2020 “does not otherwise restrict the landlord’s rights on the expiry of a business tenancy.”

While squatting in residential premises is a criminal offence, it isn’t the case for commercial properties and agricultural land, in both of which it will be trickier to remove trespassers during the lockdown.

The removal of the automatic stay removes the worry that landowners may have just had to wait until their property is damaged before taking any action, including no doubt those clients who over recent weeks and months have called upon our property litigation team to act to remove trespassers who have refused to move on voluntarily.

In the event that any client has an issue with trespassers, we are relieved that there is now no unwanted restriction on our ability to assist!

We’re here to help

We appreciate that it is an uncertain time for landlords and tenants alike, but we’re here to help. Our property litigation team is fully equipped to advise you on your rights and obligations during the pandemic, and beyond. Our legal services are operating as normal, with all of our lawyers able to work safely from home.

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Nick Cox is a partner and head of Willans’ property litigation team. He deals mainly with disputes over commercial properties. Independent guide The Legal 500 UK references his “common-sense approach, high knowledge levels and excellent overall service”.

We’re regularly updating our website with more COVID-19 legal insights, so keep an eye on for the latest legal perspectives relating to the coronavirus.

Nick Cox LLB (Hons)
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