Since 1 September 2012 it has become a criminal offence to "squat" in a residential property under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (the "Act"). This comes as a welcome relief to homeowners, who previously had little remedy against the problem of squatters, and followed a number of high profile incidents that were highlighted in the media over the summer. Squatters who are prosecuted could now face a fine of up to £5,000, a prison sentence of up to 6 months or both. In fact, the first offender to be prosecuted under this legislation for occupying a housing association flat without permission was sentenced to 12 weeks in prison.
The Act will provide protection to homeowners, local authorities, landlords and tenants of properties 'adapted for use as a place to live'. These parties can now call upon the assistance of the Police, who have the power to enter residential properties and arrest squatters. Whilst the Act has some teeth, it is worth emphasising that it does not protect owners of commercial or mixed use properties and concerns have already been raised that such properties are now more vulnerable than ever to being targeted by squatters.
It is thought that around 20,000 squatters used to live in residential properties and will obviously now be looking elsewhere. Groups of squatters are often very well organised and are able to access relevant databases, such as local council planning portals, to ascertain the use given to particular premises. Recent media coverage has highlighted a number of public houses that have been "squatted" and unless the law is changed to include business premises (and the government has indicated no appetite to do so) owners of commercial property must still pursue civil action to remove squatters.