Squatting in residential premises in the UK became illegal on 1 September 2012. Since then there has been much debate about this extension of the criminal law, and concern about the increased risk of squatting in commercial property.
The first person to be prosecuted, just three weeks after the introduction of the new offence, was sentenced to 12 weeks in prison for squatting in a flat in Pimlico, London.
On one side of the debate, there is criticism of criminalising the homelessness who become desperate to the point of having to resort to squatting. On the other side, it is seen as an encouraging sign that the police will take quick, decisive action to protect homeowners, allaying concerns that they would not be willing to use their new powers.
But there is real concern that the criminalising of squatting in residential premises will drive squatters to commercial premises, requiring owners to rely on the slow and expensive civil eviction process. The fear is that, particularly in the current economic climate, the numerous empty shops and offices will become prime targets for squatters.
One group of squatters has already taken over a large vacant office block in High Holborn. In Kent, a local campaign has been launched to criminalise squatting in commercial premises, following the occupation by squatters of a boarded-up local pub.
It’s a safe bet that there will be scope for argument as to the definition of “residential”. As so often, statutory draftsmen have provided material for a great deal of judicial head scratching.
There is no doubt that the debate – moral and legal - will continue.