Private property and the law

 

Private property is land over which the owner has exclusive rights. If a person comes onto your property, or leaves something there without permission, then they may be trespassing.

Depending upon the circumstances, this may be a civil wrong or a criminal offence.

Trespass

This is one of the most ancient areas of the common law. Traditionally it was said that ‘an Englishman’s home is his castle’ and any measures were permitted to protect it from intruders.

However, over time this rule has become more nuanced, with the courts and Parliament deciding that the right to private property must be balanced against other important rights. This has not been without a backlash and recently property laws have been strengthened once again.

Trespass applies not only to people but to objects; an abandoned car, for example or an overhanging tree can be considered trespassers.

Squatting

Technically, squatting is called being in ‘adverse possession’ of a property. Historically, a squatter could enter an empty building as a trespasser and live there until a court ordered their eviction. Today, this is only the case if the building is not residential and the trespass is not ‘aggravated’.

Consequently it is possible for squatters to be considered criminal trespassers.  

It is nonetheless important not to leave properties standing empty. If a squatter takes up residence for more than 10 years and attempts to notify you of their presence through official channels, after another 2 years it may become possible for them to claim they now own your property.

This rule used to be much harsher however - until 2002 they could automatically claim your property after 12 years.

Preventing trespassers

You have a right to secure your property against intruders but as an occupier you are still considered responsible for their welfare of anyone on your property, whether or not they had a right to be there.

Therefore, you must not set dangerous traps for trespassers, and you may not use any more than reasonable force to eject them. You should also keep the property well-maintained in order to avoid accidental injuries occurring, particularly if there is a risk of children intruding.

If it is not necessarily clear that your land is private, you should ensure that there are signs informing people of the land’s status.

If you would like to obtain legal advice on private property or trespassing, we can put you in touch with a local specialist property solicitor free of charge. Please call us on 0800 1777 162 for more information.

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