From 1 September 2012, squatting in a residential building has become a criminal offence, punishable by a maximum prison term of up to six months, a maximum fine of £5,000, or both.
The offence is not retrospective for cases where the squatting has ceased, but will apply to squatters who went into occupation before the new law came into force and who remain in the property. This does not extend to other categories of property, so will not help owners of commercial buildings.
The change is designed to remove the cost and speed up the recovery of possession by legitimate owners, or tenants of property who have been excluded from their homes, as well as people who own residential buildings they don’t live in, such as landlords, local authorities or second home owners.
The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) and the Ministry of Justice have together published an online guide to provide advice to those attempting to remove squatters from their premises. Entitled ‘Advice on dealing with squatters in your buildings’, it sets out the circumstances in which legitimate owners or occupiers may call the police to have those squatters removed, and contains advice on how to prevent squatters gaining access to the property in the first place.
The Ministry of Justice has also issued a very useful circular (2012/04) addressed to judges, courts and the police, not only detailing the elements of the new offence, but also detailing its relationship to other existing offences (such as that under section 7 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 which protects ‘displaced residential occupiers’ and ‘protected intending occupiers’ where the definition of a property is wider than under the new offence). The circular makes clear that the new offence does not apply to tenants who remain in a property after their tenancy has expired or where they are in breach of their tenancy agreement, perhaps by not paying rent. The offence is only committed if a person knew that they were a squatter; it is not intended to apply to individuals who have occupied a property in good faith believing themselves to be tenants. The circular also tries to contend with the obvious problem that squatters may claim to have been the victim of a fraud by stating that it would be reasonable to expect a person claiming to be the victim of fraud to produce a tenancy agreement or similar entitlement to occupy. It is made clear that the offence is committed by someone who takes on a squatted property from another squatter.
Surprisingly, there is nothing in the circular to address the issue that has plagued the current legislation, namely the refusal of the police to get involved in what they see as a ‘civil matter’. However, a few of our clients have already been in touch with the police via their local community safety partnerships and it would seem there is some appetite to invoke the new legislation, with a couple of police-assisted evictions carried out already.