Squatting becomes a criminal offence

The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill (LASPO) has recently been approved by Parliament and will come into effect on 1st September 2012. Amongst the raft of proposals, section 145 of the Bill will make “squatting” a criminal offence.

The term “Squatters’ rights” is common parlance and has been portrayed in the media as something which is very difficult to deal with. There have been stories about families returning to properties after a holiday to find that squatters have moved in, and of expensive homes being overtaken before the owner has had a chance to move in. This has not only affected residential properties but also commercial properties awaiting development or renovation, as well.

The new legislation states that

A person commits an offence if:

(a) the person is in a residential building as a trespasser having entered it as a trespasser,
(b) the person knows or ought to know that he or she is a trespasser, and
(c) the person is living in the building or intends to live there for any period.

The sanction for squatting will be up to a maximum of 6 months in jail and/or a maximum fine of £5,000.

Whilst some may argue that this has brought a new power to the table, this is not strictly true. Under s.7 of the Criminal Law Act 1977,

any person who is on any premises as a trespasser after having entered as such is guilty of an offence if he fails to leave those premises on being required to do so by or on behalf of:

(a) a displaced residential occupier of the premises; or

(b) an individual who is a protected intending occupier of the premises.

For the purposes of this Act, a displaced residential occupier would include someone returning from holiday to find that their house had been overtaken and a protected intending occupier would mean someone yet to move into property. There is, however, conflict with another part of the act.

Section 6(1) of the Criminal Law Act 1977 states that

(1) Subject to the following provisions of this section, any person who, without lawful authority, uses or threatens violence for the purpose of securing entry into any premises for himself or for any other person is guilty of an offence, provided that—

(a) there is someone present on those premises at the time who is opposed to the entry which the violence is intended to secure; and
(b) the person using or threatening the violence knows that that is the case.

It is this provision which historically has prevented residents from entering properties in order to seize them back from squatters and which has coined the phrase “squatters’ rights.”

The new provisions will go some way to solving this quandry with a definitive recourse for the problem.

Some may argue however that there are existing civil remedies available to solve the problem of squatting and that its simply a case of general ignorance on the part of society as to what they can do in such situations. Anyone finding themselves ousted by squatters can apply to the Court for an Interim Possession Order (IPO) which once served on the squatter will give them 24 hours from that date to leave. Failure to do so will be a criminal offence.

It is arguable that a lot can happen to a property in that 24 hours. Damage may occur, items may go missing, and there would then be a further legal battle to seek compensation or damages or to bring any criminal charges against those responsible. Where a large community of squatters is residing, it may even be difficult to specify who was responsible. The advent of a criminal offence therefore, may well mean that if Police are able to attend quickly enough, any such action may be preventable and it will be at no legal cost to the owner of the property.

It is important to note that this offence is limited to residential property. Commercial premises would therefore not be caught by the Criminal provisions and it would therefore be for the owner to resort to an IPO to resolve matters. It is also not clear yet whether section 6(1) of Criminal Law Act 1977 will eventually be phased out, however, it is worth noting that this provision had as its aim, the protection of eviction of tenants by unruly landlords. It also protects against acts of retribution so will probably remain in its current form.

The introduction of the new law means the criminalisation of something which has always been deemed a civil matter. The change of position may prove to be a useful deterrent, but only time will tell.


Disclaimer

This briefing is for guidance purposes only. RadcliffesLeBrasseur accepts no responsibility or liability whatsoever for any action taken or not taken in relation to this note and recommends that appropriate legal advice be taken having regard to a client's own particular circumstances.