Out-Law / Your Daily Need-To-Know

Government to consult on making squatting a criminal offence

Out-Law News | 02 Aug 2011 | 5:02 pm | 1 min. read

Squatting in residential or commercial buildings could become illegal, the Government has said.

Plans put forward in a consultation would make squatting in buildings a criminal offence for the first time.

The Government has become increasingly concerned about the "distress and misery" squatters can cause, according to the consultation paper.

The consultation will gather more information about the nature and extent of squatting in England and Wales and invite views on whether, and how, existing criminal and civil mechanisms should be strengthened to deal with it.

The consultation also asks whether there should be a distinction between the treatment of squatting in relation to residential and commercial property.

The new criminal offence of squatting could result in a prison sentence for the most persistent offenders, the consultation paper says.

There is currently no data held by central Government about the number of people who squat or their reasons for doing so, according to the consultation.

Squatting is a form of trespass which involves occupying land without the consent of the owner.

Although trespass is not in itself a criminal offence there are already a range of mechanisms in place to deal with criminal activities which occur due to the actions of squatters, such as damage to private property. Owners and occupiers of property can also pursue civil procedures to have squatters evicted.

Only dispossessed residential occupiers are entitled to break back into their homes and ask the squatters to leave. A squatter who then fails to leave commits a criminal offence.

Owners of commercial property and owners of properties which are not their own homes commit a criminal offence themselves if they break back into their property where there is a squatter present who is opposed to their entry.

The Government recently published new guidance on the DirectGov and Department for Communities and Local Government websites for people seeking to evict squatters from their property.

Criminalising squatting is one option that the Government is considering, but other options outlined in the paper consider whether existing offences and civil mechanisms relating to squatting could be strengthened. The paper also asks whether the problems caused by squatters would diminish if existing offences, such as those of criminal damage and burglary, were more rigorously enforced.

The Ministry of Justice recently announced plans to stop squatters getting legal aid to fight eviction as part of its proposals for the reform of legal civil aid, according to the announcement.

"Far too many people have to endure the misery, expense and incredible hassle of removing squatters from their property. Hard working home and business owners need and deserve a justice system where their rights come first," said Justice Minister Crispin Blunt.