With effect from 1 September, a new criminal offence of squatting in a residential building comes on to the statute book under section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. This summary tells you all you need to know about the new offence, which has implications for all who own or manage residential and commercial property.
How the new offence works
The new law is a response to a number of high profile cases in which property owners have had to spend many months and thousands of pounds trying to recover possession of their homes. It is intended to give the Police and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) greater powers to arrest and prosecute squatters and to make it simpler, quicker and cheaper for the owners of residential property.
The offence will be committed if:
- A person enters and remains in a residential building as a trespasser
- He/she knows or ought to know that they are trespassing; and
- He/she is living in the building or intends to live in it.
The law only protects owners of residential property, and does not apply to commercial property. Residential building is defined as a structure which has been designed or adapted for use as a place to live. When applying this test, the occupation by the squatter is disregarded and so, for example, the fact that a squatter has set up home in a vacant shop does not make the shop somewhere adapted for use as a place to live.
Where the offence is committed, uniformed police officers have the power to enter and search premises for the purposes of arresting the trespasser(s). Prosecutions will be dealt with in the Magistrates’ Court and the sanctions available to magistrates are a maximum of six months’ imprisonment, a fine of up to £5,000, or both.
Implications for residential buildings
For those who own or manage residential buildings that are susceptible to being squatted, the new law should be welcomed. It will increase the burden on the Police to remove squatters in such situations, however, and property owners could still face the possibility that the Police may not have the resources to be able to deal with trespass cases quickly.
The new law will not apply to every act of trespass in a residential building, and there are exceptions where the offence will not be committed. For example, the offence will not be committed where:
- The squatter has not entered and remained in the building as a trespasser. If the trespasser was initially allowed into occupation with permission of the property owner, e.g. a legitimate tenant, the offence is not committed
- A lawful tenant or licensee remains in occupation and ‘holds over’ after the expiry of a lease or licence
- The squatter had no reason to believe that they were trespassing, e.g. if they were duped by a bogus landlord or letting agent
- The trespasser has no intention of living in the property for any period of time. For example, someone entering onto a property owner’s front hall or porch to deliver junk mail would not commit the offence.
So long as the new offence is enforced by the Police, the risk of imprisonment or a heavy fine (though to some trespassers the prospect of a fine may be little deterrent) should make squatters less inclined to squat in residential buildings. However, it remains to be seen how willing the Police will be to play a pro-active role in the enforcement of what they have traditionally treated as civil matters.
Where one of the exceptions applies and the new offence is not committed, property owners will need to fall back on traditional methods of recovering possession. In the majority of cases, this requires an application to the county court for a possession order which is subsequently enforced by the bailiffs carrying out an eviction.
Implications for all other types of property
Owners of vacant commercial property or land should be even more vigilant about securing their premises from 1 September onwards. Many squatters are very well informed and will be aware that the new law only applies to residential buildings. This means that in future they are likely to target non-residential buildings in order to avoid the risk of arrest.
Owners of vulnerable property should therefore review the security arrangements that are currently in place and consider whether they need to be bolstered.
How can Bevan Brittan help?
If you are unfortunate enough to encounter squatters on your property, we can advise you on whether the new law will apply and the quickest and cheapest options available to you.
If a non-residential property is squatted, swift and decisive action should be taken to remove the trespasser(s) and the property should be re-secured as soon as the squatters have been removed. Even in situations where residential buildings are squatted, it is possible that the Police will lack the resources to be able to assist.
In either of those situations, our guide on the options available when property other than a residential building is squatted will be useful: View our guide