Following extensive media reporting of public concern over the recent increase in squatters taking over empty houses and frustrations with the civil court process currently relied on to get squatters out of properties, the Government has announced that squatting in residential buildings is to become a criminal offence. A review and consultation by the Ministry of Justice this summer has led to the changes to the law on squatting being included within amendments to the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, which is due to reach the House of Lords in early 2012. The new provisions are expected to then come into force shortly after.
What is squatting?
A proposed definition of squatting for the purposes of the new law has been published as “anyone who enters a residential building as a trespasser and occupies it without the authority of the rightful owner/occupier of the property”.
What are the new laws?
The new criminal offence will be committed where a person in a residential property 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 property or intends to live there for any period.
The changes have been welcomed by homeowners and residential landlords given that criminal sanctions currently available are known to be reluctantly enforced by the police. Civil Court proceedings to enforce evictions have proven to be costly and time-consuming, with many people not being in a position to afford the required advice and resources, and so providing police with new powers of arrest is seen by many as an effective step forward.
However, some human rights and religious groups have condemned the move on the basis that homelessness figures are already on the increase in the UK, believed to be tens of thousands of people, and to criminalise squatting could seriously escalate the housing crisis.
What about commercial property?
The changes do not criminalise squatting in non-residential properties as the Government found that there does not seem to be the same level of concern about this issue, although of course the existing criminal or civil procedures remain open to owners of properties affected by the problem. It is expected that further consideration will be given to this later and the same changes may be made.