Travellers and the law: How do they get away with unauthorised encampments


Gypsies and Travellers are a source of much controversy in the UK. Many people believe that they have too many rights, while the travellers themselves would argue that they don’t have enough.

What happens if Gypsies, Travellers or Travelling Showpeople enter land illegally?

Why do gypsies/travellers pursue a travelling lifestyle?

There is a past history and tradition for some people to live in caravans or move around the country. However, encamping on someone’s land without their consent is unlawful and in certain circumstances, it is not just a breach of civil law, but also criminal law.

Does the Council or Police have a duty to move gypsies/travellers when they are camped without the landowner’s permission?


The powers given to local authorities and the police are discretionary and can only be used when certain conditions exist. Failure to comply with both civil and criminal procedures would render the Council and Police liable to successful challenge in the Courts.

What about trespass?

The duty of the Police is to preserve the peace and prevent crime. Trespass on land itself is not a crime – it is a civil matter. Prevention of trespass is the responsibility of the landowner, not the Council nor the Police.

What about criminal activity associated with some authorised encampments?

Most gypsies and travellers are law-abiding citizens. The Police will deal with crime committed by gypsies/travellers when there is a complaint and evidence to support it, just as they would when committed by anyone else.

When can the Police move them on?

The Police may activate their powers under section 61 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 to require gypsies/travellers to leave.

The Police are able to activate these powers where they are satisfied that two or more more people are trespassing on the land, and the landowner has taken reasonable steps to make them leave (and they have failed to do so). In addition, one of the following also has to apply:

  • damage has been caused to the land or property, or
  • threatening / abusive / insulting behaviour has been used against the occupier, his family or agent, or
  • the trespassers have six or more vehicles.

Any enforcement of section 61 requires considerable resourcing and consideration has to be given to having sufficient police officers available etc., which may in itself take some time to arrange.

When can the Council move them on?

If gypsies/travellers are camped on Council land, the Council can recover possession of their land by using a County Court Order, if their land is occupied without their consent.

If the gypsies/travellers are on Council land and are causing problems they will be moved on as soon as is possible and reasonable. The Council will consider each case on its merits. In all cases the site is visited and every effort made to make sure that the gypsies/travellers keep the site tidy and do not cause public health problems.

If they are on private land, it is usually the landowner’s responsibility.

Can the Council remove gypsies/travellers from their land immediately?

No, the Council must:

  • show that the Gypsies/Travellers are on the land without consent
  • make enquiries regarding the general health, welfare and children’s education
  • ensure that the Human Rights Acts 1998 has been fully complied with
  • establish ownership of land.
How long will it take for the gypsies/travellers to be removed?

This will depend upon the circumstances of each individual case. The Council will need to take account of the issues outlined above as well as how soon they can obtain a Court hearing date.

What can I do if unauthorised encampments occur on my land?

Firstly talk to them to see if a leaving date can be agreed.

If you are not willing to tolerate the encampment any longer, you or your solicitor can go to a County Court and obtain an Order granting you possession of your land.

Further details can be obtained from the County Court.

What happens if gypsies/travellers occupy their own ground without planning permission?

Gypsies and travellers are advised to undertake pre-application discussion with Local Planning Authorities to ascertain whether any proposals they may have for permanent sites are acceptable in land-use planning terms.

Where Gypsies purchase land and occupy it without planning permission, whilst this is not in itself an offence, the local planning authority has to consider the land use implications and the undesirable precedent of such development. This can often involve consideration of enforcement action.

More often than not, occupation of the land is accompanied by the submission of a retrospective planning application. If the outcome is the refusal of planning permission and a resolution to take enforcement action, there begins a lengthy process of appeals and court proceedings.

What if I am content to allow unauthorised camping on my land?

As a landowner you may be in breach of any planning or license requirements, and you should contact us for advice in the first instance.

If they are not causing a problem, the Government has asked that consideration be given to tolerating encampments for short periods of time.

Who do I complain to about unauthorised encampments?

The Council’s Environmental Health Service is the first point of contact for complaints about unauthorised encampments. Instances occurring on Council owned land will be directed to the Service responsible for it’s management who will investigate the complaint and instigate legal action, where appropriate.