Those of you who don’t live under stones will be aware of the recent campaign to make squatting a criminal offence, and the opposition from various angles. There has been a lot of smoke generated by the argument, which has been the cause of more fuss, including a letter to The Guardian signed by 160 housing lawyers and a response by Michael Weatherley MP (all extensively covered by the excellent Nearly Legal blog at http://nearlylegal.co.uk/blog/) so it would be helpful to set out some of the facts.
The sort of squatting that is at issue is short-term occupation of land or buildings without the owner’s consent. It must not be confused with
- Squatters rights – ie gaining ownership of land by 10 or 12 years occupation;
- Travellers living on land they own without planning permission – as at Dale Farm;
- Tenants holding over after their lease has expired – usually as periodic tenants.
These are all interesting subjects for another day, and this piece will concentrate on the short-term occupants. It won’t deal with the possible social consequences than criminalising squatting may have on the homeless population either.
Now squatters are often their own worst enemies. Being scruffy and unwashed, and doing unspeakable damage to a building by failing to master the plumbing makes them hard to like. However, this does not mean that making squatting itself a criminal offence will achieve anything . There are a lot of laws in place already which cover the area:
- There are all the normal criminal laws on criminal damage, abstraction of electricity, theft, assault and so on to deal with breaking in, damaging the property, stealing electricity and other things, and which the police have the same powers to enforce against squatters as anybody else, although it is fair to say that proof can be difficult to obtain.
- Occupying a home and failing to leave when requested by the owner who is living there, or intending to do so, is an offence under the Criminal Law Act 1977 and the police have power to arrest and prosecute anybody who does not leave.
- Occupying vacant property that is not a home is not in itself a criminal offence. However the owners can go to the civil courts for a possession order. If they get an interim possession order, which normally takes a few days, the squatters have 24 hours to leave or again commit a criminal offence, and the police again have powers of arrest and prosecution.
- And there are various specialised offences such as trespassing on MoD property, camping on a common and so forth that might come into play.
All of this depends on the police, on which more below. But an owner is not restricted to waiting for the police to respond. He can take action himself;
- A residential owner can break in and use reasonable force to remove any occupants. This can include employing security staff, or friends, to help him. Not always the best course, but perfectly legal.
- Occupants of land (not including buildings) can be removed by bailiffs instructed by the owner. This can often be achieved within a couple of days and is widely used against travellers who encamp on say office car-parks .
- Or the owner of a house or other building or land can get a possession order in the civil courts, which takes a few days, and then enforce it with the Sheriff (now called the High Court Enforcement Officer) which again takes a few days. Many squatters try to leave before the HCEO arrives, and the police have to attend and assist the HCEO on request.
There are some problems in the current situation. The police are often very reluctant to take any action despite the extensive powers set out above, telling the owners that it is “a civil matter”. Their position is understandable because they have limited resources, inadequate training on the point, and don’t want to get into arguments between an owner and a tenant or former tenant who is being unlawfully removed, when they might become personally liable for their actions. They are much happier when the matter has been decided by the courts. Creating more offences won’t help here. They need more training, and a more vigorous attitude to enforce the existing laws.
And the civil route involves some delay, albeit normally only days, and cost. But the people who rely on it are either not homeowners but office or park owners, and ought to be able to afford something, or are homeowners who have been let down by the police (see above). There may be some small tweaks to improve the process, but generally it works reasonably well.
The big problems occur when a property has been occupied for a substantial time, the owners have not bothered to do anything, and a lot of damage is done. Or the owners pick inexperienced lawyers and don’t take advantage of the speeded-up processes that are available. Or they aren’t really squatters but tenants and have an arguable right to be there which needs to be decided by somebody.
No, this is not a problem that a new offence will cure, and anybody who is proposing this must know this in their hearts. One is forced to think that there might be other motives – publicity and a desire to please Daily Mail readers, for instance. But I really couldn’t comment on that.