I have separated from my partner, can I change the locks?
This is a question which is frequently asked by clients. The answer is that it depends upon the circumstances.
People who are married or in a civil partnership have a right to live in the family home if it has been, the main family home during the marriage or civil partnership. This is the case whether the property is in your joint names, only one person’s name or you are renting it. Both parties therefore have the right to be in the home and you cannot exclude the other person without a court order. In such circumstances, neither party has the right to change of locks.
Where you are not married or in a civil partnership the reply to the question depends upon whether the property is jointly owned or not. If the property is jointly owned then you cannot change the locks without the agreement of the other person.
Both of you have a right to access and to occupy the property. If only one of you owns the property then the owner is entitled to change the locks. However, where the non-owning person has paid money into the property such as contributing to the purchase price or paying for improvements, they might be able to establish an interest in the property which in turn could mean that they have a right to live there. It would therefore be wise to seek legal advice before changing the locks.
Can my ex break in?
A joint owner can use “reasonable force” to re-enter a property they have been excluded from. They may ask a locksmith to change the locks again. If they do try to forcibly re-enter an occupied property then they could find themselves on the wrong side of the law. Under Section 6 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 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 that this is the case. The Act states that a person who has an interest in or a right to possess or occupy the property this does not in itself constitute lawful authority. Violence in this case can be against the other person or the property.
In some cases in may be possible to exclude the other person who has a right to occupy the property by obtaining an Occupation Order from the Court. To successfully obtain an Occupation Order you will need to show to the court that it is appropriate for your partner to be excluded. For example, you may need to show that there is a risk of harm to yourself or your children. This is not always easy to do as the threshold for the Court to make such order is fairly high.
If you do change the locks to keep the other person out, you may find yourself facing a court application where your ex seeks to enforce their right to live in the property or they try to forcibly re-enter. In most cases it is far more sensible and cost effective to deal with this issue practically and without the need for a court order. It is best to try and agree who will remain in the property and ask the person leaving to give you notice should they wish to return to the property.
At Watson Thomas our Lawyers have lots of experience in dealing with rights in respect of the family home and all aspects of family law. Please call us today for a free initial meeting.