A new Act has just been passed by Parliament, which introduces a new criminal offence of squatting. Is this new offence finally going to help reduce the risk to owners of empty buildings posed by squatters?
The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 is yet another hefty document which adds to the encyclopaedia of criminal justice legislation that has been introduced in the last decade. The Act imposes mainly administrative rules for the provision of legal aid, but tucked away at the end of the Act is a new criminal offence which has piqued the interest of many property owners.
Following a Ministry of Justice consultation into the issue which took place in the summer, the Act makes it unlawful to squat in a residential building. In legal language, it is a criminal offence for a person to enter a residential building as a trespasser, knowing that he or she is a trespasser, and where they intend to live there for any period of time.
If a person is convicted under this section, they could expect a fine of up to £5,000, or a term of imprisonment of up to 51 weeks. Although the Act has been passed, the government has not yet announced the date from which it will be in force.
Now if you’re starting to feel a sense of déjà vu, you would be right. There has been a criminal offence to deal with squatting since 1977. The difference is that under the 1977 law, the presence of the squatter became illegal only when they were asked, and refused, to leave. Under the new law, the very act of squatting is unlawful. The idea behind the new offence, and the conclusion of the consultation, is to make it easier for the police to use their powers to arrest squatters: under the old law, the police needed proof that the squatters had been asked to leave before they could take any action. According to the Ministry of Justice, the police are often reluctant to use their powers for fear of evicting persons who are entitled to be at a property, and so taking bothersome possession proceedings against the squatters in the civil courts is the necessary course of action for most landowners who are affected by squatters.
So it’s clear that the new law is not a sea change, and what it does tweak, whilst certainly useful, leaves some surprising gaps.
The fact that squatting has suddenly become slightly more criminal is unlikely to have much more of a deterrent effect than there already is. It is surely uncontroversial to say that people who are squatting are doing so out of some form of necessity, and the risk of punishment for having a roof over their head is just par for the course. Unless there is a huge shift in the attitudes of squatters so that they feel morally reprehensible for squatting, the amount of squatting taking place is unlikely to decrease by any meaningful amount.
It is arguable that the only real deterrent impact of the new offence will be to push more squatters towards using commercial rather than residential buildings, as they will know that it’s much harder to force them to leave. There has never been a specific criminal offence to deal with squatting in a non-residential building, and the new law will do nothing to change that. Owners of empty commercial premises, or perhaps disused agricultural buildings, will still have to take civil possession proceedings against any squatters, and the new law will only serve to increase these sorts of instances.
The new law is not an easy solution to situations such as the ‘Dale Farm’ saga that dominated the headlines for much of last year either. There will still be no offence for squatting on open land.
It’s also important to note that the new offence will not change the existing laws on adverse possession. If a squatter is not discovered and removed from the premises using the new offence, then they will still be able to bring an adverse possession claim at the Land Registry after the required period of time has elapsed.
It is therefore clear that the message remains the same as it ever was. If you own an empty building, whether residential or commercial in nature, then you must take adequate steps to secure your property so that the problem doesn’t have the opportunity to manifest itself in the first place. Reliance on the potential deterrent effect of the new offence would be thoroughly misguided, and much anguish will still ensue if squatters target your building.