The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act received Royal Assent on 1 May 2012. Tucked away in section 144 is a new criminal offence of squatting in a residential building. The arrestable offence is punishable by up to a year in prison or by a fine of up to £5000.
A person commits the offence if:
- he is in a residential building having entered as a trespasser;
- he knows or ought to have known that he is a trespasser; and that
- he intends to live there.
The occupied premises have to be residential either by design or by adaptation but include temporary or movable structures.
This criminal offence is the first (and so far only) step taken by the government to deal with squatters, following on from the Ministry of Justice’s formal consultation on “The Options for dealing with Squatters”, the response to which was published by the Ministry of Justice on 26 October 2011. It has courted controversy for both going too far and not far enough. Homeless charities allege that it unfairly targets the homeless, an already vulnerable section of the community. Commercial landowners complain that it does nothing to deal with their concerns as to the (high) cost and (slow) speed of evicting squatters under the various existing procedures.
Squatting is already a criminal offence under the Criminal Law Act 1977, and it is certainly a respectable argument that we do not need a new criminal offence, but rather need the existing law (both criminal and civil) to be enforced consistently and effectively.
The new offence is of limited value as it targets a very narrow group of squatters - those occupying residential premises. It does not cover squats in commercial property or on land. As a criminal offence you potentially have a quick fix to remove occupiers; however I wonder how many squatters will produce a so - called tenancy agreement when challenged by the police. In the absence of evidence of forced entry, I am sceptical how willing the police will be to actually use those powers.
More significantly, I am concerned of a potential knock-on effect on commercial property. As the criminal offence only bites on residential premises, the well-informed squatter will simply target commercial premises – and so accentuate the existing problem faced by commercial landowners, namely that the recovery of possession remains a patchwork quilt of civil and criminal remedies, which are often relatively slow and expensive for the landowner.
The Act does not become law until at least September 2012. In the meantime there will be extensive consultation with interested groups. Let us see if the offence actually comes into being.