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Squatting is now punishable: What are your options as owner?

 
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Squatting is now punishable: What are your options as owner?

Julie Jamaer, Pieter Helsen

On 16 November 2017, the new law criminalising squatting – the occupation of an uninhabited building – will come into effect. What legal steps can you take from 16 November if squatters occupy your (vacant) home, garage, garden shed or even commercial buildings? Read more here.

 

A recurring and topical issue in recent years has been the powerless situation you as owner could end up in if your home or property is occupied by squatters. The new law seeks to strengthen the position of the owner by providing expanded options to act against so-called ‘squatters’.

 

When a house or other property is undesirably occupied or entered, a distinction still needs to be made between the occupation of an ‘inhabited’ and an ‘uninhabited’ building. An important criterion for this is whether a property is or is not furnished. A second residence on the coast or in the Ardennes, as well as your home when you spend a week on vacation or are hospitalised, are considered occupied properties.

 

Occupying an inhabited building without permission was already punishable as unlawful entry before the legislative change, but only when this occupation was achieved using forcible entry or violence. Since the change in the law of 16 November, it is also a crime if permission from the inhabitants has not been obtained.

 

In addition, the law now also makes punishable breaking into, occupying and staying in uninhabited property. Thus the crime of squatting is formulated so broadly that not only the traditional vacant and often dilapidated squatted premises can be the object of the crime, but probably also garages, garden sheds and even commercial buildings.

 

As owner of an occupied building, you then have two options:

 

First and foremost, you can initiate proceedings before the justice of the peace, just like before. These civil proceedings will now be much quicker than before the change in the law. For a further analysis of the changes with respect to civil proceedings, we refer to the article by our colleague specialists Jasmina Sadek and Stefaan Vandyck, which you can find at the following link

 

New is the second possibility, i.e. filing a complaint with the Public Prosecutor’s Office against a perpetrator of the crime of squatting. The Public Prosecutor can then issue an eviction order requiring the squatter to leave the property within eight days. Moreover, the perpetrator risks being sentenced to one month’s imprisonment and a fine. Ignoring the eviction order can be further sanctioned with a prison sentence of up to a year and a fine.

 

The change in the law certainly ensures improved protection for the owner, although it remains to be seen to what extent the Public Prosecutor will treat this crime as a priority.

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