As you are no doubt aware, the new law against squatting, s144 of the remarkably comprehensive Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, comes into force on 1st September 2012.
This is not completely unexpected. About a year ago the Government, following pressure from the new Conservative MP Michael Weatherley, promised in a sudden blaze of publicity to make squatting a criminal offence. Some papers, such as the Daily Mail, got terribly excited about this. Other housing lawyers got equally excited, and wrote a letter signed by 160 of them (including me) to The Guardian saying that the problem was already covered by lots of laws, and that if squatting was a problem, which they tended to doubt, then a new criminal law was not the answer. But to nobody’s surprise the Daily Mail point of view prevailed, and s144 was born.
I covered all this in a piece on Coventry View at the time – The Fuss About Squatters – and I won’t go over all the old ground again. It will be enough to say that
- The normal laws of criminal damage, theft, assault etc cover breaking in, stealing things, threatening violence and so on;
- Occupying a home (or a potential home) and not leaving when requested is already an offence under s7 Criminal Law Act 1977 and the police have power to arrest and prosecute anybody who does not leave. This includes gardens, sheds and so on.
- Occupying vacant property that is not a home allows the owners to go to a civil court and get an interim possession order. This takes a day or two and if the squatters don’t then leave they again commit an offence which the police can act upon.
There are also civil remedies
- self-help – a residential owner can go in with his friends or security staff and throw them out;
- squatters on land (not in buildings) can be removed by bailiffs without any court proceedings;
- possession orders can be obtained in the civil courts and enforced by the High Court Enforcement Officers (formerly sheriffs) usually within a week or so. The police have to assist HCEOs on request.
The problem has always been that the police don’t like getting involved in this sort of thing. They are uncomfortable, and have many other things to do. So they say “it’s a civil matter” and tell the owners to go off to court, when there is very often no need to do so.
The New Law
Will the new law make any difference? Well, it makes it an offence if
- a person is in a residential building having entered as a trespasser
- they know or ought to know this
- they are living in the building or intend to do so.
The new offence doesn’t apply to tenants holding over after the end of a lease or licence, even if they leave and re-enter the building.
Note that the offence only covers a “residential building” ie one that is designed or adapted before the time of entry, for living in. And a “building” includes all structures or parts of structures (including temporary or moveable structures).
In order to prevent a wild rush last week it makes no difference whether the entry was before or after the section came into force. And the police have been given express powers of entry and arrest to enforce the new law.
So the criminal law, and possible intervention of the police, has been extended to cover residential properties where there is nobody living in them (or allocated to live there – a displaced potential residential occupier), but not their gardens outhouses etc. It doesn’t cover commercial properties, or land as such.
Whether this will make any difference in practice will depend entirely on whether the police give the matter any priority over their other work. Given their attitude to the other offences mentioned above this looks unlikely. And the owners will have to fall back on the civil remedies that they retain.
A possible damp squib. Although the new political Police Commissioners may decide to use it as a way of making something of a mark. Who knows? We shall see.