Under UK law, specifically the Race Relations Act 1976, English Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers are recognised as ethnic minorities who have the right to protection under the law and to be protected from nuisance, harassment, discrimination and harm from others.
This right applies equally to gypsies and travellers, as it does to the settled community. Indeed, gypsies and travellers are at the very least protected from discrimination under the Race Relations Act and the Human Rights Act 1998.
Generally, local authorities have a responsibility to provide space for travellers to camp on permanent sites. However, it is against the law for travellers to occupy land which has not been designated for this purpose.
Can gypsies and travellers occupy any seemingly vacant land?
No, as mentioned above, they cannot simply occupy land because it is vacant, if it has not been designated for this purpose. However, there are sometimes opportunities for temporary encampment for genuine travellers in locations that can cause minimum disruption to other communities.
Gypsies or travellers should contact the local authority in the area in which they wish to camp to find out whether there is any space for them on a permanent, or temporary site.
How can landowners remove gypsies and travellers from their land?
If a landowner discovers unofficial encampment on their property and wants to make use of their land, or simply to ask the travellers to move on, they may do this by agreement, or they may use the legal system.
If the land is privately owned, it is not the local authority’s responsibility for ending the occupation of the land by gypsies and travellers; it is the landowner’s. There are a number of steps that can be taken in doing so:
- It if often best for the landowner to initially speak to the travellers to find out how long they intend to occupy the land for and, if possible, try to reach an agreement for when they will move on.
- The landowner could contact the local authority for advice. Although the council can only apply for a court order if it owns the land, it may be able to offer advice on preventative measures or occasionally they may be able to find space on their permanent sites
- In some (limited) circumstances, the police may be able to assist in moving gypsies and travellers on from a site using their legislative powers. However, occupying private or council-owned land is not a criminal offence, so they will probably advise landowners to take legal action instead.
- The owner or tenant of the land can apply to a County Court to serve an order on the gypsies or travellers to leave the site by a given date. The process will take around ten days and there will be charge for the service of papers, legal and court fees. To ensure that the court order covers everyone occupying the land, it should state those occupying the land at that time and ‘any others present’ should move on.
- The owner or tenant can adopt a process known as ‘self-help’ if there are only a few caravans on the site. This involves carefully towing the caravans off the land themselves if, having spoken to the travellers, they refuse to move. This is not recommended and the police should be informed of any intention to exercise this option in case there is a breach of peace. Also, landowners should be aware that they will be liable for any damage to the vehicles.
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