Squatting-will the new law provide homeowners with increased protection?

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On Saturday 1 September 2012 a new law came into force which makes squatting in a residential building an offence punishable by up to a year in prison or by a fine of up to £5,000.00. Whilst much is being made in the media about this new law (Section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012) does it actually change the current laws on squatting?
The answer in a nutshell is no, not significantly. It was already a criminal offence under the Criminal Law Act 1977 for a squatter to occupy someone’s home, or a home that a person intends to occupy (covering, for example, the case of someone who has just purchased a property but not moved in). A homeowner is defined as a Displaced Residential Occupier, or if they are intending to move into the property, a Protected Intended Occupier.
In both cases it is a criminal offence for a squatter to remain in the property as soon as they have been informed that there is a Displaced Residential Occupier or a Protected Intended Occupier. If the squatter then refuses to leave, the police have the power to arrest the squatter and remove them from the property. Both the police and the homeowner have the power to use reasonable force if necessary to remove the squatter in these circumstances.
The new law defines a squatter as a person who:
  • Is in a residential building having entered as a trespasser;
  • Knows or ought to have known that he is a trespasser; and
  • Intends to live in the property at which they are trespassing.
Does the new law increase police powers?
There have been various high profile cases in the media of people being advised by the police that there was nothing they could do to assist in the removal of squatters and that squatting was a civil matter. However, it is only in cases where the owner of the property is not actually living at the property being occupied by squatters that it becomes a civil matter.
It would therefore appear that some of these cases in the media could (and should) have been dealt with by the police under the existing criminal law. Where the matter did not fall within the Criminal Law Act 1977 such as where the owner of the property did not live there, steps to evict the squatters would need to be taken in the civil courts.
The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 now makes all squatting within residential premises a criminal offence, regardless of whether the owner lives in the property or not.
Various commentators have questioned the necessity of further criminalisation in this area. The cost to the public purse has been estimated by the Ministry of Justice to be £25 million over 5 years. However, these costings by the Ministry of Justice did not take into account the costs to other departments such as the police, the criminal courts (in processing criminal convictions) and Local Authorities (in terms of dealing with homelessness applications from people seeking re-housing).
Furthermore, questions have also been raised about the impact that these measures will have on vulnerable homeless people who have resorted to squatting as they had no alternative. These questions are particularly pressing during a time when homelessness is rising and people’s incomes are decreasing in the wake of significant cuts. The question is whether the further criminalisation in this area is a proportionate response to the problem at hand, particularly when one considers the further cost to the public purse that this new law will create.

The Ministry of Justice has issued a circular providing guidance to Judges, Courts, and the police. However, the guidance does not deal with the issue that has proved most problematic with the current legislation; namely the failure of the police to act due to squatting being deemed to be a “civil matter”.
It therefore remains to be seen whether the police will receive the requisite training and take action to deal with squatters or whether homeowners will have to turn to the civil remedies available to them in default of police action.
William Ford is an Associate at Osbornes Solicitors LLP specialising in property litigation work acting for both tenants and landlords. If you would like to speak to William with regards to a property matter you can:
  • E-mail Will
  • Call Will on 020 7485 8811
  • This publication is intended for general guidance and represents our understanding of the relevant law and practice applicable as at September 2012. In individual cases specific advice will need to be sought and Osbornes Solicitors LLP cannot be held responsible for any action made in reliance upon the content of this article.

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