Protecting your estate from unlawful occupation

Protecting your estate from unlawful occupation

Recent political and economic events have seen a rise in protest action across the world, and education institutions in the UK are not immune from managing protestors on their estate.

Whilst the right to lawful protest is a right that should be preserved, it is when unlawful occupational protest action impacts the day-to-day operations of the institution that the tolerance of institutions as landowners is tested to the limit.

So, what can you do if targeted for sit-in protest action on your estate and buildings?

Formal action

Action can be taken against protesters to regain possession of land/premises which have been occupied without your permission by seeking court injunctions to prevent protestors from trespassing on private land.

Recent court decisions show that judges are becoming far more cautious when considering these injunction applications, and if an injunction is awarded it must not only be clear and precise in its terms but also have specific geographical and temporal limits.  Institutions will need to define precisely what unlawful activities they seek to restrict – such as trespass or harassment.  They must also be ready and able to identify the relevant group of persons involved in this activity in order to be able to enforce any injunction over a defined area and for a set period of time.

Accordingly, it will assist institutions if they can document as much information as possible about the protestors gathered on their land, including collating accurate descriptions of those involved and, where possible, obtaining or gathering photographs and CCTV footage.

Acting swiftly is essential

The disruption to your normal operations as an institution, potential criminal damage, disruption costs and the costs involved in re-taking possession are just some of the repercussions that you may face when part of your estate is subject to an occupational protest.  In the worst-case scenario you may have to temporarily close the use of your facilities in the affected area until you are able to recover possession through the court process.  It is therefore necessary to be prepared and quickly respond to unexpected disruption.

Protestors occupying private land must be given written notice as soon as possible that they have no right to be there and that, should they refuse to vacate, a court injunction will be sought.  Whilst there is no minimum time frame for this, legal action should usually be taken within 48 hours after the protest starts.

On a related issue, the government has recently published a consultation on measures to further criminalise trespassing.  The proposal is specifically intended to apply to travelling communities who set up unauthorised camps so it will not apply to sit-in protest occupations.  Nevertheless if your estate is also affected by this issue then, if these measures pass into law, they will criminalise this form of intentional trespass and strengthen police powers.  As such, if your estate is occupied by travellers then you could enlist support from the police to tackle unauthorised encampments rather than making court applications for an injunction. Watch this space.

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