The new legislation, under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, which makes squatting a criminal offence, came into effect on 1st September 2012.
Under section 144 of the Act, squatting is a criminal offence if:
the person is in a residential building as a trespasser having entered it as a trespasser,
the person knows or ought to know that he or she is a trespasser, and
the person is living in the building or intends to live there for any period.
The new law means that the offence is related to the entering of the building, rather than refusing to leave when asked (although the existing provisions to deal with those offences are still in place as well as the new law). The homeowner can, therefore, call the police, who can enter the property and arrest the trespasser and take them to the police station.
The penalty is a prison sentence of up to 51 weeks and/or a maximum fine of £5,000. However, given that someone is likely to be squatting because they cannot afford rent, such fines may remain unpaid.
Who it applies to
It applies to squatters of residential buildings, even if they were squatting there before 1st September.
Who is not included
The new legislation does not cover:
Squatters in commercial property, even if it is being used as a residence
Tenants who have stayed in residential premises after their lease of licence has expired
Tenants who are behind in rent payments
The benefits to homeowners
Prior to this new legislation, a displaced occupier (for example a homeowner who has been away on holiday) or a protected intending occupier (for example a buyer or tenant who has just been given the keys) was protected under section 7 of the Criminal Law Act 1997 if they found a trespasser in their home. They could call the police, who had the power to arrest the trespasser.
However, before this new law, the owner of empty property was not protected because there was no displaced occupier. This means that anyone entering the property was not committing a criminal offence, unless they caused damage entering the property. There have been many stories of squatters claiming the window was already broken!
The homeowner would have had to obtain an interim order for possession, which takes time and money. Even if the possession order is issued within 24 hours, quite significant damage could be done to the property and possessions in that time.
The likely impact
There is, as with much legislation, some ambiguity and it will be interesting to see how it is interpreted by courts and by the Police.
It also remains to be seen how the Police will respond to requests for support from homeowners, particularly given the already high demands on their resources and their past reluctance to get involved with squatting issues.
It is not a simple case of knocking on a door and arresting people if they do not leave. The majority of cases we undertake at The Sheriffs Office require entry by force, usually tackling obstacles placed in property to prevent speedy entry and then trying to secure exits before the squatters get onto the roof.
Many of these cases require significant planning and risk assessment and these kind of operations would need to be carried out by the Police’s own Territorial Support Group (TSG) section. I am not sure that the Police realise the extent of the problem and the resources needed to deal with it.
In my opinion, it is good that there has been the will to address the problem of squatting. Is the solution is adequate? Probably not.
Contact Adrian Berkeley for a free assessment of your situation. firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone 0161-371 0011 We’re on YOUR side.