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Changing the locks on the family home following separation

Date:1 JUN 2017
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Joanne Raisbeck, Legal Director and Head of the Family Team
Hill Dickinson LLP 

Can I lock my spouse out of the house? This is a common question often raised by clients in the initial stages of separation. It is important for clients to understand what they can and can’t do before they decide to take steps that they may later regret.

Domestic Violence: Law and Practice is a comprehensive practitioner’s guide to dealing with cases involving personal protection, harassment and domestic violence.

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There are actually very few circumstances where a partner can be forced to leave their home and they will usually have a right to stay in (or return to) the family home if they are married, in a civil partnership, a co-owner or named on a tenancy agreement.

Furthermore, where a property is owned in joint names, both owners have an equal right to access. This means that if one owner changes the locks in an effort to frustrate the access of other then the excluded owner can choose to instruct a locksmith to further change the locks in order to secure their re-entry.

However, if following separation a partner has been excluded from the property and that person is fixed on regaining access, they should be advised to exercise caution against any attempted break-in as they may inadvertently find themselves on the wrong side of the law.

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Many people are unaware that Section 6 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 provides that it is a criminal offence for a person to use or threaten violence to enter a property without lawful authority if there is a person on the premises who is opposed to their entry and the person attempting to enter knows this is the case. The Act specifically states that the fact that a person has an interest in or a right to possess or occupy the property does not in itself constitute lawful authority and it does not matter whether the violence is directed against the person or the property itself.

It must also be highlighted that if the partner in situ at the family home feels threatened or they have been subject to domestic abuse by the other, then in addition to any action taken by the police, it may be possible to legally exclude the other partner from the family home by obtaining an ‘occupation order’. This type of order will set out who can live in the family home or enter the surrounding area and it can also be made on an emergency basis to provide immediate protection where there is an imminent risk of harm.

It is always sensible to take early advice as it may be possible to resolve the situation amicably and without unnecessarily increasing tension and confrontation between you.