Squatting Law Change

By Ceri Adams 27 September 2012

A new offence of squatting came into effect  on 1st September 2012.  Section 144 of the LASPO bill, makes squatting in residential buildings a criminal offence

The offence will be committed where a person is in a residential building as a trespasser and the person is living in the building or intends to live there for any period.

The maximum penalty for the offence is six months’ imprisonment, a £5,000 fine or both.

The offence will protect owners and lawful occupiers of any type of residential building. This includes homeowners and lawful occupiers who might have been excluded from their homes by trespassers, but it will also protect landlords, second homeowners and local authorities who discover trespassers in any residential property that they own or control even if no one is living there at the time the trespassers occupy the building.

The offence will not apply to tenants who entered a residential building with the permission of the property owner, but later withhold rent or refuse to leave at the end of their tenancy. Such persons are not ‘squatters’ for the purposes of this offence. Landlords should continue to follow established eviction processes to regain possession of their properties in such circumstances.

The offence will not apply retrospectively. People who are known to have squatted in the past will not be liable to prosecution. The offence will only apply to people who are squatting in residential buildings on or after 1stSeptember 2012. This includes trespassers who entered the building prior to commencement if they remain there on or after the 1st September.

Before the  law change

Squatting was treated as a civil matter and homeowners – including councils and housing associations – had to go to a civil court to prove the squatters had trespassed before they could be evicted. This process could be time consuming and costly for property owners.

So squatting was a landlord’s nightmare, with the police powerless to remove squatters without a court order and landlords in trouble themselves if they used force to remove the squatters.

By the time the landlord gained entry the property had often been trashed, leading to expensive refurbishment.

Squatting – what it is

A squatter is someone who enters and lives in a building without permission.

The UK has a long history of squatting but there was an explosion in 1960s and 1970s as young people experimented with alternative lifestyles or took part in political protests.

These so-called “lifestyle squatters” are now thought to be far outnumbered by rough sleepers and other vulnerable groups in housing need.  According to a recent study by homeless charity Crisis 39% of homeless people have squatted at some time.

Squash, Squatters’ Action for Secure Homes, points out that the number of people on local authority housing lists has nearly doubled since 1997 to five million and there are an estimated 650,000 empty properties in the UK.

The government estimates there are 20,000 squatters in the UK but squatting groups say the real total is far higher.  Without this change to the law, the number of squatters would probably have increased due to recent limitations on housing benefit allowances and house builders  failing to keep up with the growing demand for property.

Rights of squatters

Since 1977, it has been illegal to threaten or use violence to enter a property where someone is present and opposes the entry.

The law was introduced to stop landlords from using violence to evict tenants. It is what is commonly meant when people talk about “squatter’s rights”.

Even before this law change the squatters had no right to live in the property, but it was difficult to remove them.

Rights of property owners

People who have been made homeless by squatters can demand the trespassers leave. If they refuse, the offence can be reported to the police, who are now able to take action.

Police can also take action if other offences, such as breaking doors or windows to gain entry or stealing electricity, have taken place.

So what is different under the new law?

The main difference is that it will speed up the removal of squatters from unoccupied residential properties, such as vacant council houses, second homes or properties for sale.

For the first time, police will be able to raid a building on suspicion it is being occupied by squatters and remove them.

Getting squatters out of your home

If you find squatters in your home or any other residential building, you should call the police to report the crime. Squatting carries a maximum penalty of six months’ imprisonment, a £5,000 fine or both

It doesn’t matter whether the squatter entered the property before 1 September 2012 or after.  If someone is squatting in your residential building on and after 1 September they will be guilty of a criminal offence.

Most squatters are well aware of the law and may leave quickly without waiting for the police, moving onto an empty property where they may go unnoticed for sometime.

What is not covered

The squatting offence does not apply to tenants who fall behind with rent payments or refuse to leave at the end of their tenancy. Tenants who entered the building with the permission of the landlord are not squatters. In these circumstances, landlords should use existing eviction processes to regain possession of their properties.

Squatters occupying non-residential buildings will still be able to claim “squatter’s rights”.

If the property is  very run down and needs work to be carried out before it could be sold or rented out, the squatter may have an argument that they are not depriving someone of a home.  It is possible that a squatter may remove items to make it uninhabitable, such as bathroom suite, or kitchen facilities.  Although in doing so they could be liable for criminal damage and reduce their living standards.

Squatters view

There are a number of squatter support groups and whilst they expect squatting to continue, they recognise it will be more difficult.  They are not giving up without a fight and expect to see a spate of challenges and test cases over the next few months, which will draw lines between what can and what can’t be done.

They are advising the removal of their  legal warnings, as these will be read as an admission of committing a criminal offence.  So  if you see these, take a photo.

They are also advising squatters to target non residential sites:  pubs, offices, shops, warehouses and disused factories.

Further information

The Directgov site

http://www.direct.gov.uk/en/HomeAndCommunity/WhereYouLive/Derelictbuildingsandsquatters/DG_10022

Legislation website

http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2012/10/section/144#section-144-enacted-

http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2012/10/notes/division/5/5/13/3

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