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New “anti-squatting act” offers owners more options

 
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New “anti-squatting act” offers owners more options

Julie Jamaer, Pieter Helsen, Jasmina Sadek, Stefaan Van Dyck

A recurring and topical issue in recent years has been the powerless situation you as owner could find yourself in if your home or property is occupied by squatters. The new Belgian[LJ1] [JSAD2]  Squatting Act of 16 November 2017 seeks to strengthen the position of the owner in criminal as well as civil proceedings by providing more means to act against so-called ‘squatters’. 

 

Inhabited and uninhabited properties better protected

 

Intruding an inhabited building without permission was already punishable as unlawful entry before the amendment to the Act, but only if it was accompanied by forcible entry or violence. Since the amendment of 16 November, this crime has been committed by the simple fact that one does not have the permission of the residents, regardless of whether or not violence or forcible entry was involved in the intrusion.

 

The most striking innovation is that occupying and residing in (temporarily) uninhabited buildings, so-called squatting, also becomes punishable. This was not the case before. An important criterion for qualifying property as  inhabited or uninhabited is whether or not the property is furnished. A second residence on the coast or in the Ardennes, as well as your home while on vacation or when admitted to the hospital, are considered inhabited properties.

 

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.

 

What can the owner of a squatted building do ?

 

1. Civil proceedings

 

The holder of a title or a right (usually the owner or tenant) can always initiate an eviction procedure before the justice of the peace. The amendment of 16 November Significantly accelerates this procedure.

 

The owner is given eight days or, in cases of absolute necessity – e.g. when the squatter cannot be identified - , two days after filing a petition, to appear before the justice of the peace. If the petition is deemed admissible and well founded, this procedure leads to an eviction order, which can be enforced from the eighth day following the day on which it is served on the squatter(s).

 

Only in exceptional, serious circumstances, for example during the winter, the justice of the peace may postpone the enforcement of the order by a period of one or six months (the latter if the owner is a public sector body or entity).

 

Where previously the owner of a (temporarily) uninhabited or unused building often felt helpless as squatters occupied his property, thereby causing damages, the new Act provides owners or tenants new means that appear to address their needs.

 

2. Criminal proceedings

 

New since 16 November is the possibility to file 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 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 amendment to the Act certainly ensures improved protection for the owner or tenant. Although it remains to be seen to what extent the Public Prosecutor will treat this crime as a priority.

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