The Responsibility of Owners of Void Land and Properties

The Responsibility of Owners of Void Land and Properties

People who explore and (often) document abandoned places are known as ‘urban explorers’ and highlight one of the most obvious things that happens to abandoned buildings.

Entering an ‘abandoned’ building is usually still unlawful, because the land is almost invariably still owned by someone. Entering a building which is owned by someone is trespass and is usually a civil offence. Contrary to old wives’ tales, trespassers cannot typically be prosecuted – at least not for trespass alone.

A trespasser might be sued, but this is usually too much effort to be worthwhile. A landlord may give permission to enter, but unless permanent public access is granted they can recant this permission at any time.

Risks are many, and include asbestos, falling masonry, sharp objects and unsteady floors.

For this reason, to prevent the risk of people trespassing and then suing the landlord when they get hurt, it is recommended that security guards should be considered to patrol empty buildings and land to demonstrate due diligence and reduce the Risk to the Landlord and Public so far as is Reasonably Practicable.

In reality, the risk to the land owner is quite low. The below is extracted from a 2003 court case:

“I think it will be extremely rare for an occupier of land to be under a duty to prevent people from taking risks which are inherent in the activities they freely choose to undertake upon the land. If people want to climb mountains, go hang gliding or swim or dive in ponds or lakes, that is their affair. Of course, the landowner [may] for his own reasons wish to prohibit such activities. He may think that they are a danger or an inconvenience to himself or others. Or he may take a paternalist view and prefer people not to undertake risky activities on his land. He is entitled to impose such conditions, as the Council did by prohibiting swimming. But the law does not require him to do so”.

– Lord Hoffman in Tomlinson v Congleton Borough Council, 2003.

It’s still possible that landowners and landlords could end up being sued after trespass, for various reasons, but usually these reasons would involve holding items on-site that shouldn’t be there in the first place.

A more likely concern is that something of value will be damaged, or that arsonists and vandals will target the building, or that something of value will be stolen.

Squatters

Squatters cannot legally squat in residential buildings. Squatting in non-residential buildings, however, is not a crime.

It’s extremely unlikely, however, that the squatters will manage to remain in a building for ten years against a land-owner’s will.

A long-term squatter can become the registered owner of a property or land if they can prove they have occupied the property for 10 years without the owner’s and that they have acted as owners of the property for the whole of that time.

The squatters could claim Adverse Possession, which would be decided by HM Land Registry. In such cases the owner has 65 days to object and if they do, the application is normally automatically rejected.

If a squatter causes damage while entering or in the property, uses utilities such as water electricity or gas without permission, steals from the property, fly-tips, or commits any other crime the police can intervene.

Things to consider:

If you own any land, you can face claims for compensation if a member of the public suffers an injury whilst on it, even if the land doesn’t have public access. That means whatever type of land you own – whether it’s a small field or large estate, a private car park in town or a sports field – the land owner must ensure a suitable level of liability insurance is in place at all times. In addition, Environmental contamination of Land & Watercourses may revert to the landowner incurring extensive fines if the perpetrator cannot be found and due diligence cannot be proven.

Remember – legally the onus is on the landlord to protect the public from injury. That means that even if someone has an accident whilst trespassing, they can make a claim against you, and if you can’t prove you were not negligent, you’ll be liable.