Acting with conviction
Squatting could soon be criminalised but awareness of current laws is crucial, says Sarah Lines, social housing lawyer at Cobbetts
For many years, notices declaring ‘Trespassers will be prosecuted’ have been wrong in law. Until now trespassers haven’t been prosecuted. However, on 26 October justice secretary Ken Clarke announced the government’s intention to change this by criminalising squatting.
In addition, the government wants to remove the right to legal aid for squatters facing eviction, which is to be debated as an amendment to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill.
Since the publication in June of the government’s consultation paper, Options for dealing with squatters, various campaigns have been launched, reports written and statements made both for and against the options.
What are the current options when dealing with squatters?
The civil remedies available are:
- Possession actions for trespass
- Interim possession orders
- Remedies for damage caused by trespass
The current criminal offences are:
- Under section 6 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 it is an offence for a person, without lawful authority, to use or threaten violence to enter a property where someone inside is opposed to their entry.
- Section 7 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 makes it an offence for a trespasser to refuse to leave a residential property when required to do so by a displaced residential occupier or a protected intending occupier of the property. The act contains definitions of ‘displaced residential occupier’ and a ‘protected intending occupier’.
Squatters who break in and occupy other people’s property without permission may be guilty of a range of criminal offences. Breaking open a door to enter the property or causing further damage once inside is an offence under section 1 of the Criminal Damage Act 1971. Trespassers who steal items from inside the property are guilty of burglary under section 9 of the Theft Act 1968 and squatters who use electricity without authority are committing an offence under section 13 of the same act.
Even without taking into account the additional laws dealing with land trespass it’s clear from the list above that there are already a plethora of remedies, sanctions and deterrents that can be used against squatters.
What constitutes squatting?
The key legal issue is how ‘squatter’ would be defined. Does it simply mean someone present within a building? Does there need to be evidence of actual occupation or an intention to reside in a building? How would this be satisfied? Would the new crime introduce unintended consequences and a need for types of occupation to be exempted?
On a practical level, the police would need to have a thorough knowledge and understanding of existing laws to protect lawful occupiers from hasty, ignorant or unscrupulous landlords seeking to evade the correct procedures for residential evictions.
It will be a historic moment when the signs are backed up with action and trespassers are prosecuted.