Squatting in residential buildings to be criminal offence from tomorrow

Out-Law News | 31 Aug 2012 | 3:30 pm | 3 min. read

A new law making squatting in residential buildings a criminal offence in England and Wales comes into force from tomorrow.

The new offence will be committed where a person in a residential building as a trespasser, having entered it as a trespasser, knows or ought to know that he or she is trespassing and is living in the building or intends to live there for any period. Individuals could face up to six months in prison and a £5,000 fine if found guilty of the offence.

The change in the law has been introduced through the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act. Squatting in commercial and other non-residential buildings has not been criminalised.

Squatting is a form of trespass which involves occupying land without the consent of the owner. It is already a criminal offence in Scotland.

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. However, where criminal sanctions do exist, the police are often reluctant to get involved. As a result, owners and occupiers of property usually end up pursuing civil procedures to have squatters evicted.

The Government has said this process of obtain a civil court order to regain possession of properties can be "time consuming, expensive and stressful."

Property law expert Dev Desai of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that residential developers and householders alike would welcome the new offence coming into force.

"Criminalising squatting in residential buildings is a very positive, and long-awaited, development," Desai said. "It has been highly anomalous that someone could, for instance, break into a home owner's property and steal their television and face criminal conviction, but could move in to that property whilst the home owner was on holiday and watch that television and not face criminal charges for doing so."

"The new offence will also assist residential developers and landlords of vacant premises," he said. "It may encourage developers to complete partially constructed residential developments in circumstances where the properties may remain unoccupied for a period of time, especially in the current economic climate, in the knowledge that squatters can be more easily evicted."

"Usually developers of larger residential estates will employ on-site security but developers of smaller developments, and landlords of vacant homes, may not have that kind of presence," he said.

The property law expert said that squatters could start to occupy more unused office buildings as a result of the fact that squatting in residential buildings is to become a criminal offence.

"It is hoped that the police will scrupulously enforce the new law and quickly evict trespassers from residential properties," said Desai. "If so, I expect squatters will move away from those properties and target vacant office and other commercial buildings because doing so will not be a criminal offence. There will be a shift in the nature of squatting in the UK. Owners of commercial premises will need to be particularly alert to this as it is not expected that squatting of commercial premises will be similarly criminalised in the foreseeable future."

The decision to criminalise squatting in residential buildings followed a Government consultation on the issue last year. At the time the Government decided against criminalising squatting in commercial and other non-residential properties and said that "there does not appear to be the same level of concern" about the issue.

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has issued guidance (14-page / 88KB PDF) on the new offence to judges, prosecutors and the police, among others. It said that the change to the law would "protect owners and lawful occupiers of any type of residential building", including "homeowners and tenants who might have been excluded from their homes by trespassers."

"It will also protect landlords, second homeowners and local authorities who discover trespassers living in a residential building that they own or control even if no one was living there at the time the trespassers occupied the building," MoJ said.

Justice Minister Crispin Blunt said: "For too long squatters have had the justice system on the run and have caused homeowners untold misery in eviction, repair and clean-up costs. Not any more."

"Hard working homeowners need and deserve a justice system where their rights come first - this new offence will ensure the police and other agencies can take quick and decisive action to deal with the misery of squatting," he added.