Squatting in residential properties is now a criminal offence, says Joanne Young
Having an empty property brings the risk of squatters. The police do have powers of removal but are usually unwilling to use them, so landowners have had to turn to the civil courts, using the summary possession route or the interim possession route. Both options require the landowner to spend time and money.
The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 received royal assent on 1 May. Hidden away in the act is a section that introduces a new criminal offence of squatting in residential properties.
Section 144 provides that an offence will be committed where an individual is in a residential building as a trespasser, having entered it as a trespasser; knows or ought to know that he or she is a trespasser; and is living in the building or intends to live there for any period.
The offence will, therefore, not catch tenants or occupiers who originally occupied with permission but subsequently refused to vacate, workers or students occupying commercial or academic buildings by way of protest or Traveller encampments on land ancillary to residential buildings (which at this stage are specifically excluded).
Some have expressed disappointment that the new offence does not extend to commercial property squatters, although the Ministry of Justice has indicated that tackling residential squatters is the first step.
The sanctions are up to a year in prison or fine of up to £5,000. It will be interesting to see how the police react to this new provision when it comes into force on 1 September.
Joanne Young is associate in the housing and property litigation team at Ashfords Solicitors