Squatting is when someone deliberately enters property without permission and lives there or intends to live there. Under any circumstances, this is an extremely difficult situation for the owner but, when the property in question is fifteen hundred miles away in Spain, the situation becomes even more challenging.
If you suspect that the property remains occupied, you should confirm this by instructing a local representative in Spain to conduct an inspection.
Owners should resist any temptation to personally confront the occupants or enter in the property whilst the property is occupied. Threatening the occupants or using unlawful violence to remove the occupants might be considered a criminal offence on the owner’s part.
If it is unoccupied but you suspect your property is at risk, then your only additional costs will be to arrange for a locksmith to change the locks and secure the property, ideally with anti-squatter doors. If you type ‘Anti-squatter doors’ or ‘Puertas Anti-Okupas’ into your favourite search engine, you’ll have a good idea of what they look like.
However, if the squatters (Okupas in Spanish) are still in occupation and refuse to vacate the property, then legal proceedings are the inevitable outcome. Broadly speaking, there are two courses of action available - the civil eviction procedure or the criminal eviction procedure.
If faced with this dilemma, you will want to choose the option which minimises cost, delay and stress.
Having established that squatters remain in the property, you can begin criminal proceedings by contacting the police in Spain to file a complaint and asking the Police to visit the property.
If, when they arrive, the police find that the property is still occupied, they will ask the occupant(s) to prove their identity, the existence of a rental agreement or proof of property ownership. Should the occupant(s) be unable to provide the required information, the occupant(s) may be arrested, and an application can be made to the Court for their removal from the property.
With a court order in place, police can then enforce it and remove occupants under the terms of the order. In all scenarios, the property owner should arrange for a locksmith to secure the premises as soon as it is confirmed as vacant.
Depending on how the situation develops, a criminal eviction procedure usually takes between 6-9 months to conclude, although sometimes can take much longer if the Court is overburdened with Criminal cases.
Accordingly, you might be looking at total costs of anything between a low four-figure sum and a high four-figure sum. This covers the cost of the initial visit made by the estate agent, instructing lawyers to begin legal proceedings, submitting the relevant reports and monitoring Court proceedings, and locksmith fees.
As the property owner, you may be required to travel to Spain at some point in the proceedings to confirm certain details even if you have appointed local representatives under a Power of Attorney
Assuming the squatters are unable to defend the case on the grounds below, the risk of you losing the Court case on Civil grounds is low.
Human Rights case law currently exists upon which the occupants may attempt to argue their case. Swift action on your part to begin proceedings as soon as possible reduces the likelihood of squatters successfully defending occupancy based on these grounds. But the longer you leave it, the greater their chances of success.
The main issue to consider before pursuing a civil eviction procedure is cost. If your claim is uncontested and things run as smoothly as possible, it is likely that your total costs will run to mid-four-figures. This would cover our legal fees for preparing and monitoring the Court application, as well as third party expenses to cover the costs of the Procurador (court clerk) and Abogado (local lawyer) who will attend hearings in Spain on your behalf under our instruction.
If the worst-case scenario transpires and the squatters are successful in proving that an eviction infringes their Human Rights, you may be forced to appeal the Court’s decision. Even if you are forced to appeal, and unless your advisers make a professional mistake, it is practically impossible to lose your case. The most the occupants can hope for is extra time before the judgment is enforced if the occupants include older people or children. In this instance, total costs are likely to increase to a higher four-figure sum. Technically, you can claim your legal costs but, in most cases, the squatters are unlikely to be in position to pay.
Civil v Criminal procedure
Putting the comparison of costs between the two procedures aside, the main practical consideration is that many squatters tend to organise themselves in ways that can make it difficult to clearly identify them, so the criminal procedure involving the police and the potential threat of the squatters’ arrest is, overall, more effective, although this will depend on your particular circumstances and the Court dealing with the case.
Ultimately, whichever route you decide to take, it is important to seek specialist legal advice. This will allow you to understand the process involved, keep informed of how the proceedings develop, and increase your chances of achieving a successful outcome. For more information, please contact Dennis Phillips on 0115 985 3473 or a member of our Spanish Team at Buckles Solicitors on 01733 888888 or visit www.buckles-law.co.uk