UK: The Criminalisation Of Squatting

Last Updated: 27 April 2012
Article by Peter Levaggi

The government has confirmed that it is to criminalise squatting in residential properties. The Ministry of Justice has published a response to its consultation in which it lays out its plans for the creation of a new offence of squatting. This offence will apply to residential properties only and will be dependent on certain criteria. The key points are:

  • that the squatter must be in the property as a trespasser;
  • that the squatter must have entered it as a trespasser;
  • that they must have known or ought to have known that they are a trespasser; and
  • that they are living in the property or intend to live there for any period.

Justice minister Crispin Blunt commented that:

"Given the level of public concern about this issue, the government has decided as a first step to introduce a new offence of squatting in residential buildings. Stopping short of criminalising squatting in non–residential buildings represents a balanced compromise. Squatters who occupy genuinely abandoned or dilapidated non– residential buildings will not be committing the new offence, although their actions will rightly continue to be treated as a civil wrong and they can still be prosecuted for offences such as criminal damage or burglary."

The Legal Aid Sentencing and Enforcement Bill is currently making its way through Parliament and is likely to become law later this year.

There was substantial concern from bodies such as the Magistrates' Association that the new offence might criminalise Scouts, Guides or hikers sheltering in bad weather.

However the Ministry of Justice felt that these concerns were exaggerated. There was only a remote possibility of such problems arising given that it was unlikely that the property owner would complain. In any event the police would have discretion as to whether or not to charge an offender (or even investigate the matter). There will be no new offence to prevent tenants being maliciously accused of being squatters as it is felt that the current offence of perverting the course of justice is a sufficient safeguard.

It is unlikely that the new regulations will help in relation to the problems for landlords created by movements such as Occupy London, particularly as the new offence will not, at this stage at least, extend to commercial buildings.

When the Occupy London protesters took over part of a 500,000 sq ft City office development site owned by UBS Bank subsidiary Sun Street Properties, Sun Street Properties were forced to rely on the usual court process with the delays and costs that this involves. The squatters, congregating outside St Paul's, appealed against a possession order (Sun Street properties Ltd v persons Unknown). They claimed insufficient notice had been given of the original hearing and that they had the possession order interfered with their human rights under the European Convention for Human Rights (the right of freedom of expression [article 10] and the right of assembly [article 11]).

In the determination of the appeal, in December 2011, Mr Justice Roth disregarded serious defects in the notification of the original hearing to the squatters and upheld the possession order because the right to protest did not constitute to a sufficient defence and article 10 and 11 could not be relied on to deprive a land owner of its own rights.

Martin Roger QC of Falcon Chambers commented

"The long running and now finally successful efforts of the City of London Corporation to clear the "Occupy" encampment from its prime pitch outside St Paul's Cathedral illustrate in an extreme form the difficulties land owners can experience in recovering possession from savvy squatters. Although considerable respect was afforded by the courts to the views of the protesters, the Court of Appeal has now provided a significant steer to judges managing similar cases in future. Little time should be taken up in providing a platform for the expression of the views protesters seek to promote, no matter how sincerely those views are held, since they are unlikely to be of much significance to the legal issues involved."

The new offence would not have assisted Sun Street Properties in avoiding the problems with the court process. Indeed, we consider that the net effect of this new offence is likely to result in squatters diverting their attentions to commercial rather than residential buildings.

The criteria proposed for the new offence also mean that it will not catch tenants and lodgers who originally lived in the building but have since had a disagreement with the landlord or stopped paying rent, nor people entering a property in good faith or travellers' camps on land next to residential buildings.

Summarising the proposed offence, Peter Mooney, the Senior Partner of County Bailiff Company said:

"Squatters in today's society look at vacant residential property as not just their home but also as an income; many organised criminal gangs operate rented accommodation from residential squatted property. The new Bill, which will allow the police the right to arrest squatters from residential property, is all very well but the squatters will only move over to the commercial property market. The new Bill will only work if it covers residential and commercial property."

To read this update in full, please click here.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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