Following the news in November 2011 that squatting in a residential building was to be made a criminal offence, The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act received Royal Assent on 1 May 2012. Section 144 covers the much-debated crime, which has been committed if a person:
- is in a residential building having entered it as a trespasser; and
- knows or ought to know that they are a trespasser; and
- is living there or intends to live there for any period.
An offence is not committed by someone holding over at the end of a lease or licence, even if they leave and re-enter the property. The punishment is up to a year in prison or a fine of up to £5,000. The definition of residential property is quite wide, including temporary or moveable structures as long as they are designed or adapted to be a place to live before entry by the squatter.
The law does not affect commercial property, which many fear may now be targeted by greater numbers of squatters as an alternative to the residential properties they can no longer occupy without fear of possible arrest. Some commercial property owners have expressed their frustration that the government has not yet considered changes to the law to control squatting in their premises as they will remain subject to the slow and expensive civil procedure of eviction. The law also continues to be criticised by human rights groups and charities for the homeless such as Shelter, who feel that an already vulnerable section of society are being targeted.
The Act is due to come into force once a date is appointed, before which there is continuing opportunity for consultation and discussion with interested parties. Its impact and interpretation remain to be seen.