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Evicting unknown trespassers – What the latest Supreme Court ruling means for landlords


Colin Fenny and Luke Holden from our property litigation team analyse and comment on what recent Supreme Court ruling means for landlords and local authorities seeking injunctions against persons unknown.

The property litigation team at Harrison Drury has significant experience in removing trespassers from property and land, and the case of Wolverhampton City Council and others (Respondents) v London Gypsies and Travellers and others (Appellants) [2023] UKSC 47 (29 November 2023) heard in the Supreme Court, may provide an alternative route for removing trespassers from commercial land.

What’s the background to the case?

The case centred on whether the court can grant final injunctions to prevent persons unknown or unidentified at the date of the order from occupying and trespassing on land, otherwise known as ‘newcomer injunctions’.

A series of ‘newcomer injunctions’ had been obtained by local authorities to prevent unauthorised encampments by members of the travelling community. These injunctions were issued against persons unknown and obtained without notice hearings.

At first instance Nicklin J, held that interim injunctions could be granted against persons unknown, but final injunctions could only be granted against identified persons. In light of the number of such injunctions being sought by local authorities, the case proceeded to the Court of Appeal where Nicklin J’s decision was reversed.

The Court of Appeal held that final injunctions could be made against persons unknown with reference to a specific proscribed behaviour, resulting in a person becoming a party upon breaching the injunction itself.

What was the Supreme Court’s ruling?

The case found itself in the highest court on appeal from London Gypsies and Travellers and two other organisations who were accepted to have standing.

While the Supreme Court rejected the appeal, its reasoning was markedly different from that given by the Court of Appeal. The Supreme Court focused upon the basis on which ‘newcomer injunctions’ can be granted. It was held that ‘newcomer injunctions’ are a new type of contra mundum injunction and such injunctions can only be justified if:

  1. The applicant has demonstrated a compelling need to protect civil rights or enforce public law that is not adequately met by other remedies.
  2. Adequate procedural safeguards have been provided for, both in the application and subsequent court order. These are to include taking all reasonable steps to draw the application and court order to the attention of those likely to be affected by it and to provide provision for liberty to apply to have the injunction varied or set aside. For instance, advertising an intended application so as to alert potentially affected travellers who may be able to represent their interests at the hearing of the application.
  3. The applicant complies with a duty of disclosure, requiring them to bring to the court’s attention any matter which a ‘newcomer’ might raise to oppose the making of the order.
  4. The injunctions are not disproportionately applied in duration (no more than one year) nor in geographical area.
  5. It is just and convenient that a ‘newcomer injunction’ is granted.

Any distinction to be drawn between interim and final was rejected, as ‘newcomer injunctions’ are “in substance always a type of without notice injunction” and treating them as such at the outset was deemed to be the correct approach.

Where does this leave us?

The Supreme Court’s ruling leaves ‘persons unknown’ in a fairly precarious position, while offering some comfort to landlords and local authorities up and down the country.

Applicants must describe such persons as precisely as possibly in any injunction application, but the concept of a ‘newcomer injunction’ potentially encapsulates the whole of humanity. Regardless of whether a person has been served in advance, if a person knowingly breaches an injunction order they will be liable and held in contempt.

It remains to be seen whether this judgment will capture general trespassing claims in circumstance where the known trespasser leaves, but then later returns to re-commit the trespass, or whether a landowner will have to return to court to obtain a further injunctive order.

A last word

The safeguards outlined by the Supreme Court are vitally important and indicate an acknowledgement that these will evolve over time.

One element of uncertainty that the judgment leaves is whether such injunctions guard against previously evicted ‘persons unknown’ from returning to the previously occupied premises.

Obtaining an order for possession is not always the end of the story. In order to enforce a possession order, where the defendant has refused to vacate, the claimant will need to apply for a writ of possession (if in the High Court). A writ of possession will not be issued if more than three months have passed since the date of the order for possession and cannot normally be applied to third parties outside the scope of the order.

However, along with the support of the judgment of R Wandsworth County Court, ex p. Wandsworth [1975], this judgment appears to indicate that with its all-encompassing ‘newcomer’ term, that a writ (if within three months of the order) can be applied to any individuals (and returning trespassers) breaching the order.

The judgement does not however, clarify the position on returning or new trespassers to land beyond three months of the order for possession having been granted. It would seem that in such circumstances, an applicant would need to return to the court and obtain a further writ of possession.

It remains to be seen whether ‘newcomer injunctions’ will make an appearance beyond the traveller scene, but any applicant will need to carefully assess the justification for the order sought and the potential rights that may be interfered with, along with determining the proportionality of the interference claimed.

For more information or support on this topic, please contact Colin Fenny or Luke Holden in our property litigation team, or call us on 01772 258321.

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