Law means squat
Despite the hype surrounding recent legislation, ‘squatters’ rights’ have not been abolished, argues Brynmor Adams
Government policies are often launched with a hyperbolic statement about the new initiative’s revolutionary impact. All too often the proposal’s detail reveals that its promised aims will not be achieved.
The law criminalising squatting in residential premises came into force on 1 September. It was launched with the usual ministerial fanfare from, among others, the former English housing minister Grant Shapps.
He claimed:’No longer will there be so-called “squatters’ rights”. Instead, from next week, we’re tipping the scales of justice back in favour of the homeowner and making the law crystal clear: entering a property with the intention of squatting will be a criminal offence. And by making this change, we can slam shut the door on squatters once and for all.’
As landlords will know, it takes more than slamming a door shut to keep out squatters. The new legislation does not abolish ‘squatters’ rights’. Moreover, it is unlikely to prevent squatting in vacant residential premises.
Old rights remain
Section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 provides that a person commits an offence if they are in a residential building as a trespasser having entered it as a trespasser, with the knowledge that they are a trespasser and with the intention of living in the building for any period. Thus it is now an offence to squat residential premises.
While section 144 criminalises the act of squatting, contrary to Mr Shapps’ statement it does not abolish ‘squatters’ rights’.
These derive from section 6(1) of the Criminal Law Act 1977, which criminalises the use or threat of violence to persons or property for the purpose of securing entry to premises where there are persons opposed to such entry. Aside from exceptions for certain displaced residential occupiers, if squatters object to an owner’s entry, the owner cannot remove the squatters themself without committing an offence. A social or professional landlord cannot therefore evict squatters without a court order.
The LASPO act does nothing to change this - so to claim ‘squatters’ rights’ have been abolished is pure exaggeration.
LASPO creates a new offence, which the police may use as a basis to enter a property to arrest and remove squatters. However, if the police decline to arrest the squatters, the landlord’s position remains the same. They must issue civil proceedings, obtain a possession order (or interim possession order) and instruct court bailiffs to lawfully evict the squatters.
Here to stay
Before LASPO, various aspects of squatting were already illegal. Section 144 was said to be justified by the headline-grabbing cases where homeowners came home to find squatters in their house. Squatting of this kind was already an offence under the Criminal Law Act 1977.
Anecdotally, such cases have persisted because the police have been reluctant to intervene in what they perceive to be a civil dispute about property ownership. It has long been in the Home Office’s gift to dictate policing priorities, but it has not prioritised arresting squatters. Given the police’s ambivalence when consulted about the proposals enacted by LASPO, it would be surprising if the new offence were given any greater priority.
In the deepest and most persistent economic downturn for several generations, squatting is unlikely to disappear. In areas such as London and the south east of England where there is an acute housing shortage, those unable to obtain a home through conventional channels will continue to resort to squatting in unoccupied buildings. The social problem of squatters in unoccupied buildings is arguably less serious than street homelessness. If enforced, the legislation may create more problems than it solves.
As such the legislation neither does what the government claims nor is it likely to achieve its aim. For social landlords and local authorities, LASPO is unlikely to reduce the cost or difficulties of keeping vacant properties free from squatters.
Brynmor Adams is a barrister at Five Paper