Trespassing travellers – local authorities and the battle for injunctions

The ability for local authorities to obtain wide-ranging injunctions restraining travellers from setting up unlawful encampments has been in the spotlight this month.

On 14 January 2020 the High Court granted Norfolk County Council an interim injunction restraining travellers from setting up unlawful encampments on park-and-ride sites outside Norwich. This marked a success for the Council in a long-running operation to combat the growing traveller encampments located on routes into Norwich. The camps, which have existed since 2014, had caused the Council notable losses from fly tipping, waste clean-up costs and lost park-and-ride revenue and had also caused nuisance to local residents.  

The Council had previously used its local authority powers under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 (sections 77 and 78) to evict the travellers, but this had not solved the problem as the travellers simply reappeared, rotating between different sites. In coming to its decision to grant an injunction against "persons unknown", the court took into account the fact that this previous enforcement action had been ineffective and that the Council was unlikely to be compensated adequately through an award of damages. The court was satisfied that there was prima facie evidence the travellers were occupying the land unlawfully and that they would continue to do so unless an injunction was granted. The court granted Norfolk County Council a three-month injunction.

However, local authorities hoping to follow Norfolk's example were on 21 January 2020 provided with a timely reminder of the balance to be struck between protecting local residents’ interests, avoiding the need for repeat injunctions and complying with their obligations to ensure provision for the gypsy and traveller community ('GTC'). In the case of London Borough of Bromley v Persons Unknown and others [2020] EWCA Civ 12, the Court of Appeal upheld an opposing decision by the High Court  to reject an application by the London Borough of Bromley for a five-year long, boroughwide injunction against "persons unknown". The injunction, which was directed against the GTC was considered too long and too wide-ranging. The court also noted the cumulative effect of other recent injunctions: if every local authority obtained one then the GTC would eventually be denied anywhere to go.

 The cases should serve as a reminder to local authorities to strike a balance between protecting local residents’ interests and their duty to engage with and provide adequate provision for the GTC. It also provides a reminder to private landowners to seek a balanced order and to provide detailed evidence when seeking wider-ranging orders or when referring matters to the High Court with a certificate of urgency. Issuing in the High Court can expedite matters where there is substantial risk of public disturbance or serious risk of harm to persons or property but robust evidence will be required. Whilst such judgments often turn on specific facts, it is clear that any injunction deemed to be disproportionate is unlikely to be granted.

With thanks to Lisa Kelly for assisting in preparing and researching this article.