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Traders Warned 'Beware Shop Squatters'

Local retailers should be on their guard against fly-by-night traders claiming what amount to "squatters" rights in empty shop premises, warn leading Warwickshire solicitors Lodders.

The warning comes after a long established family firm of drapers and furnishings, Fred Winter of Stratford on Avon, found it had to go to court after traders selling discount designer label clothes occupied premises on which Winter's had signed a long term lease.

Lodders' commercial litigation partner Mr Michael Wakeling explained:

"The traders moved in claiming to have a licence for a short term lease which they said they had independently signed with the freeholder. That claim turned out to be false.

"Unfortunately, because there was no sign of a forced entry, the police could not get involved and the onus was therefore on our clients to prove they had title to the premises through the civil courts."

The whole process took three weeks during which time the traders continued to sell their goods to the public and Winters was unable to start a planned refit of the premises in Henley Street. By the time the case was finally heard the traders had vanished overnight.

Mr Wakeling said:

"These sorts of incidents are common in London, particularly leading up to the Christmas season and it looks like these traders may be beginning to target a wider area of the country.

"These people know exactly what they are doing. By being careful not to cause any criminal damage they know the police cannot get involved and that they have time to trade while any case comes to court. They then vanish without having paid any rent or rates and having prevented the legitimate shop owner or leaseholder from trading in their own premises.

"In this case they spun a very convincing story about the licence. They then managed to get the court case adjourned by a week by claiming not to have had the time to consult their own solicitors. By the time the case came to be heard they had had an extra 10 days of selling to the public and had then disappeared."

Winter's managing director Mr Brian Winter said the whole incident had been extremely frustrating.

He said:

"As far as the public were concerned this looked like a temporary, but legitimate, operation. We don't know how the traders gained entry, but once they were in, they used a locksmith to change the existing locks so that they could get in and out, but we couldn't."

For Lodders, Mr Wakeling said:

"Our advice to the owners and leaseholders of empty shop premises is to make sure that you bolt and barr your premises in such a way that anyone gaining entry would be forced to do some damage.

"If they do any damage the police can immediately become involved. Otherwise you may be in for a court battle and weeks of delay. This sort of situation could prove financially ruinous to genuine shopkeepers if their plans to move in to premises and start trading have to be delayed by such tactics."

In the Stratford case Mr Winter was awarded costs - if anyone can find the right people from whom to claim them.

 MORE INFORMATION: Jane Grant, PR Support  01926 624994

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CWN / Business / Newswire / Lodders / 20 Oct 98

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