IMAGINE coming home from holidays with the sinking feeling that something is wrong. On arrival, you take out your keys and try to let yourself in, only to discover that the lock has been changed. Hammering on your door, you wait for someone who oughtn’t to be there to answer. Seconds later, the door swings open and you’re faced with a couple who calmly advise you that it’s their home now and you may go elsewhere.
While this is the stuff of nightmares, it’s also the stuff of reality. In the summer of 2011, two sisters in their 50s came home from a two week holiday to find a family living in their £500,000 London home. The squatters refused to move out. While the owners were away, neighbours became concerned when they saw strangers throwing bags containing the sisters’ possessions out their windows. On enquiring what was going on, the neighbours were wrongly informed that they were the new owners as they had bought the property.
As for whether this is happening in Ireland, John O’Leary, partner at M.J. O’Connor Solicitors, says: “I’ve never heard of it and I have successfully handled ‘a fair few’ squatting cases over the past 35 years. But that isn’t to say it won’t happen in the future, as Irish society becomes more anonymous.”
In May of this year a squatting dispute was resolved in the High Court when a Nama-appointed receiver was granted an injunction compelling the three occupiers of a €450,000 property on Dublin’s Barrow Street to vacate the premises. The trio had moved in a couple of weeks earlier and changed the locks. In court, the squatters’ spokesperson unsuccessfully opposed the receiver’s application, while arguing that if forced to leave, the occupiers would be made homeless and their rights under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights would be breached.
The link between homelessness and squatting was reinforced recently when a young American couple hired the 64-year-old homeless woman who answered the ad they placed on Craiglist for someone to help with their kids and do light housework in return for bed and board. Diane Stretton, 64, refused to leave the home of Marcella and Ralph Bracamonte in Upland, California.
They told ABC news that when they asked her leave, after she took to her bed a few weeks into the job, she threatened to sue for elder abuse. When police were called they said they couldn’t help as the woman had established residency. The couple were advised that if they wanted this woman out they would need to go to court to have her forcibly evicted by county sheriff personnel.
The forcible removal of those in adverse possession of property is not an activity that Dublin City sheriff, James Barry, has ever, in 18 years, had to engage in.
“There have been situations where individuals whose homes were being repossessed have threatened to stay. If they remain and refuse to go after the date on which a court has ordered them to leave, they’re technically squatting,” he explains. Apart from his powers of persuasion is there a secret behind his excellent track-record for exacting peaceful repossession of properties? “I sometimes arrive accompanied by a garda,” he says. “That tends to help individuals to understand that they have to go.”
Confirming that neighbours are often the culprits and that discreet fence-moving is often the method by which they attempt to take land that isn’t theirs, O’Leary says: ” A farmer mightn’t notice if, over an extended period of time, a fence is moved three, five or maybe 10 feet by his neighbour. That happens more often than many realise, particularly in boundary disputes. Yet, while most are reasonable and don’t take advantage, there are others who think that anything they want is fair game.”
As for who’s most likely to take adverse possession of Irish land? “The typical profile would be a farmer who considers the scrub bounding two farms to be his,” explains O’Leary. “One farmer’s view may be that he has been using the land for years — his cattle drink there, he drains it so it won’t flood, he fixes the fences and the neighbour never objects — and even if it is registered in that neighbour’s name, he never use it... But we also come across absolutely brazen individuals who will grab anything they can get away with.
“While those bent on skiving off their neighbours’ land are the most common type of squatters in Ireland, there are also those who target unused land and buildings. “This commonly occurs when individuals pay little attention to property they own,” says O’Leary. “Usually, it’s located some distance from where they have a business, farm or residence, and they get a shock when they discover that someone has built a house or a building there and that this individual is living or conducting business from there or is grazing animals or sowing crops on the land.”
Squatters’ rights are not easily achieved. It’s not just a matter of moving onto somebody else’s property and staying put for 12 years. “The Latin phrase nec clam, nec vi, nec precario (neither secretly, nor by force, nor with permission) comes into play,” explains O’Leary. “Essentially the squatter must openly use and refuse to vacate the property. His behaviour has to be the equivalent of thumbing his nose at the owner.
“If, during the period of occupation, he accesses the property secretly or under cover of darkness, or if admits that it doesn’t belong to him, or acknowledges that the owner has title, no court will allow him to keep it.”
Can the gardaí help? “Not usually; as trespass is not a criminal matter. But they should of course be called, if an individual trying to repossess property is chased away by someone wielding a pitchfork.”