The law surrounding “squatting” has been the focus of debate in recent years. Until 1 May 2012, squatting has been treated as a civil matter and property owners have been forced to seek relief from the Courts to remove trespassers occupying their property. This often proves to be time consuming, expensive and stressful.

However, since 1 May 2012, section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (“LASPO”) makes it a criminal offence to squat in residential properties. Squatters can now be prosecuted and face a maximum fine of £5,000, six months in jail, or both. Whether the trespasser entered the property before or after the offence came into force is irrelevant.

Only recently has this new offence been tested for the first time. On 2 September 2012, three individuals were arrested for squatting in a residential flat in Pimlico, London. All three defendants pleaded guilty and were prosecuted. The first defendant was jailed for 12 weeks by Westminster Magistrates’ Court, with the second defendant being fined and due to be recalled to prison in breach of his licence. The third defendant is due to be sentenced shortly.

Whilst many critics have called for leniency following this decision, what is encouraging to see is that action is being taken to protect homeowners from squatting. Having said, some may consider s.144 of the LASPO as only a step in the right direction, as this new offence does not apply to commercial properties, or to those continuing to reside in the property following the end of a lease or licence. It is therefore always prudent for property owners to seek legal advice should they wish to recover possession of their property.