Is this more unnecessary legislation or have the government now rightly quashed squatters rights?
Relying on apparent concern from the public as the reason for this move, the government has introduced a tough new law which criminalises squatting. Section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 has brought in an offence of squatting in a residential building. The Ministry of Justice confirmed that what are commonly known as "squatters' rights" - preventing forcible entry to an occupied building – have now become redundant in relation to residential premises.
The new legislation applies to people who have entered a residential building without permission, knowing that they shouldn’t be there, and intend to stay for any length of time.
If squatters entered a residential building before 1 September 2012 (when the new law came in to force) and are still there now, it will apply to them. A person convicted under the new law is liable for a fine of up to £5,000 or imprisonment for up to six months.
However, it does not apply to people who are holding over when a lease or licence comes to an end, or 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.
The new legislation has been criticised by some lawyers who claim that section 7 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 already provides this protection for home owners. The Criminal Law Act 1977 applies to gardens and the occupation of a garden sheds, however, the new legislation does not.
Squatting can now be reported to the police who have the power to enter the property and arrest people who they believe are squatting. The upside of this for landlords is that the police will now shoulder the cost of evicting squatters for them. One wonders, however, whether the police are likely to give these matters their priority, especially in the new landscape of meagre budgets and reduced resources. The police have been noticeably quiet about how they intend to react to the new legislation. One consolation is that landlords will still be entitled to revert to the civil law and bring their own proceedings to recover possession if the police fail to adequately deal.