Summary – Squatting in residential buildings will be a criminal offence as from 1 September 2012 under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (the “Act”):
The Ministry of Justice consulted on the issue of squatting and possible options for dealing with it. The new law will mean that a person will have committed a criminal offence under section 144 of the Act where they:
- are in a residential building as a trespasser, having entered it as a trespasser
- have known or ought to have known that they were a trespasser; and
- are living in the building or are intending to live in there for any period.
The person will be liable on summary conviction to:
- imprisonment for a term not exceeding 51 weeks;
- a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale; or
A constable may enter and search any premises for the purpose of arresting a person under this offence (section 17 of Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984).
The criminalisation of squatting in residential premises should make the process of removing squatters easier, quicker and cheaper. It is in response to calls for greater protection for property owners from squatters. This step will act as a far greater deterrent; by dispelling any confusion as to what action can be taken by police.
Increased powers will likely speed up the sale of premises, which might otherwise have been delayed by the presence of squatters.
This offence does not, however, stretch to commercial premises for which the old regime remains. This position was affirmed in a recent case concerning the eviction of the Occupy London protesters from a vacant office building owned by Sun Street Property, a UBS subsidiary. UBS did eventually obtain possession; however, Sun Street Property Ltd v Persons Unknown  EWHC 3432 exemplifies the potentially protracted process involved in evicting trespassers from commercial premises and the importance of closely following the possession procedure (Civil Procedure Rules Part 55). Delay tactics are often successfully pursued by squatters in commercial premises.
Under the current regime, applications for interim possession orders must be made within 28 days of becoming aware of a trespass. Squatters failing to vacate after 24 hours of service of the order are committing a criminal offence, however, these matters are generally considered to be civil matters and police are less ready to intervene than it appears will now be the case in a residential context. The law on commercial property is unlikely to be brought into that with the new law under the Act for residential premises due to limited resources and practicability.