James Scarborough from the Stowe Family Law St Albans office joins us today to discuss this commonly asked question.
“One of the questions we are regularly asked by clients when they separate is “can I change the locks”? The question is usually raised following the estranged spouse or partner moving out; maybe they keep returning and letting themselves in or maybe there have been incidents of domestic abuse.
The answer, typical in family law, is that it depends on the circumstances. As a result, a lot of legal fog is created around different situations and the outcomes that are achieved.
Here are two possible scenarios:
You jointly own the house with your spouse or partner
If the property is owned jointly with the other party, then you are both entitled to enter the property (unless there is already a court order in place restricting access or occupation).
In these circumstances, you should not change the locks. The other party could simply use reasonable force to re-enter the property or ask a locksmith to let them in and change the locks again. However, that person should be wary of the police becoming involved and their sensitivity to a situation arising which creates distress to the parties or the children involved or even creates a breach of the peace.
The next question that arises is “What about my right to privacy?” This is a worthy and understandable desire but remember if you both have legal ownership of a property you both have, in principle an equal right to occupy the property. Court remedies are available by way of an Occupation order but these are granted where there is a risk that you or your children might suffer from significant harm whether it be of a physical or emotional nature.
You own the house in your sole name
Alternatively, when the property is owned by just one party, in principle they have a right to change the locks to their property. Whilst the non-owner may well have a legal right to live in the property they would need to assert that right through the court by applying for an occupation order.
However, the types of people who can seek such a remedy are limited to “associated person”.
A person is associated with another person if:
- they are or have been married
- they are or have been civil partners
- they are cohabitants or former cohabitants
You will find the remaining list of “associated person” here
In most family law cases, there is a fine line between acting in accordance with the law and the consequences of those actions and the likely fall out. We have met many clients who have been asserting their legal rights but have still found themselves being asked to leave a property by the police or have found that as a result of actions taken it has had serious repercussions in other issues whether related to the divorce, the financial arrangements or more importantly their children.