Shutting the Door on Residential Squatters
In our winter 2011 issue we wrote about the way in which land owners could evict squatters. At the time, the action that a land owner could take was primarily limited to commencing court proceedings – that is unless the land owner had actually been displaced from their home. In those cases the police had power to remove the offenders but were all too often reluctant to do so, frequently referring to squatting as “a civil matter”. In consequence most land owners, including displaced home owners, ended up in court.
In the same article, we highlighted the government’s proposals to make squatting a criminal offence in its own right. These proposals were adopted and on 1 September 2012 a new criminal offence of squatting came into force.
Any person convicted of the offence can expect to face a fine of up to £5,000, up to 51 weeks in prison, or both. That is a much starker prospect for a squatter than previously when (in most cases) a land owner not knowing the true identity of the squatters would be forced to bring court proceedings against anonymous people. That inevitably meant that the prospects of recovering the considerable legal costs incurred from the squatters were slim to none – the squatters really had nothing to lose. The potential for a criminal record and, in a worst case scenario, loss of liberty may make squatters think twice before entering a property.
However, it remains to be seen how effective the new offence will be – it has its limitations. There are various qualifications to the offence and there is certainly the potential for dispute as to the meaning of some of the wording.
For starters, the person must have entered the property as a trespasser (which rules out, for example, previous tenants) and perhaps more significantly, they must know or ought to know that they are a trespasser. It will be interesting to see how the police react to an occupier who produces a sham tenancy agreement saying they thought they were entitled to be there!
Crucially, the building must be residential and the squatter needs to live or intend to live there for any period. The offence does not therefore help owners of commercial property. In fact, there is some concern that it might actually lead to an increase in the number of squatters in commercial property who want to avoid the risk of being arrested for the offence. There is also plenty of room for argument as to what constitutes residential property. The offence defines it as a building designed or adapted before the date of entry as a place to live. However, we can envisage uncertainty about whether, for example, a public house with living accommodation above falls within the definition.
That said, for residential property owners (if the offence achieves its objectives) it could be a cheaper and quicker way of recovering possession. Homeowners should no longer have to prove that they have actually been displaced and the police should be much clearer on the scope of their own powers in relation to the squatters. The uncertainty of yesteryear may just become a permanent thing of the past.
There was considerable support for the proposals to criminalise squatting. It is hoped that the new offence will achieve the desired result, giving reassurance to residential land owners who find that their property has been occupied by squatters. For now, however, until there are some real life examples of how the offence works in practice, the jury is out as to its effectiveness!