Guarding empty homes
Landlords should seek legal advice before hiring ‘guardian’ services to protect their property, says Ben Halsey, senior associate at Lewis Silkin
Parties, including registered providers, involved in development projects may from time to time face the problem of keeping a vacant site secure before existing structures can be demolished.
Often such sites are vulnerable to squatters. This can be a headache for a number of reasons. In particular, because of the subsequent difficulty of recovering vacant possession, whether through the courts or with the help of the police depending on the nature of the property, and with resulting costs.
In addition, an often overlooked point is that once a site is occupied, a landowner may leave themselves open to possible public liability claims from occupants (even if that occupation is unlawful). For example, the Occupier’s Liability Act 1984 places a limited duty of care on owners to keep trespassers safe when using their premises, even though they are trespassers.
These risks can in certain circumstances be addressed in practice through the use of an onsite ‘guardian’ service. This will usually involve a company that takes responsibility for managing the occupation of the property by licensees, often referred to as guardians, who will live in the property during the period. Usually, the existing property does not have to be residential. In any event, there may be aspects of the proposed arrangements which need to be addressed from the point of view of the local planning authority.
Such schemes are usually intended to save an owner money on hoarding and other traditional security employment costs.
There are a few potential traps landlords considering these schemes should watch out for. As owner you will need to be satisfied with the relevant notice periods for termination of the arrangements, both as regards to the individual licensees (even if you have no direct relationship with them) and the overall management arrangement with the company providing the service.
The basis on which parties are permitted occupation (and their legal status as licensees) will also need to be tied down.
The situation that you don’t want to find yourself in is where you are ready to take back the site and begin demolition or development, only to find that there is an issue securing vacant possession - precisely what you were trying to avoid.
Many companies offer such guardian services but they will usually require property owner parties to sign up to standard documentation. While this is usually presented as a tried and tested formula, legal advice should almost certainly be sought, even if it is simply to request a brief ‘health check’ of the proposed arrangements on a site-by-site basis.