Time called on squatters

A new criminal offence of squatting came into force on September 1 but there are some doubts about how the new law will operate in practice. Previously where someone had broken into property, a criminal offence may have been committed such as criminal damage or burglary. In practice, because the property was vacant or abandoned, it was almost impossible to obtain evidence that a criminal offence had taken place. The squatters could claim that a window or door was already open. The squatters could then use section 6 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 which made it a criminal offence to secure entry to a property by force where someone (even a squatter) is there at the time who is opposed to that entry.

The new law makes it an offence to enter a property designed or adapted for use as a place to live without the owner’s permission, provided the person knows he is doing so without permission, and he lives there or intends to live there for any period. It does not apply where the person has at some point in the past had the owner’s permission to be there (i.e. he is holding over after the end of a tenancy or licence).

If the owner of a property reports the offence then the police have a right to enter and search the property for the purposes of making an arrest where they have reasonable grounds for believing the offence has been committed. The offence ought to make it much more straightforward for property owners to recover possession from squatters. One need only call the police, give them evidence that the offence has taken place, and then re-secure the property once all those inside have been arrested.

It is not clear what extra demands this will make on the police’s limited resources but there may be situations where the police choose not to attend because of the need to prioritise.  However, the new offence has been widely publicised and squatting is such a highly charged issue that land owners will be hopeful that the police will divert appropriate resources to squatting cases.

The police will only have the right to enter and search the property if they have reasonable grounds for believing that an offence has been committed. If an occupier claims to have a tenancy (and may even have something that looks like a tenancy agreement to wave around) the property owner will need the police officer to determine who is telling the truth. How are the police to determine whether the occupiers are living there or just visiting? In most cases it will be obvious that an offence has been committed but there is no doubt squatters will seek ways of avoiding arrest.

Three men were arrested last Monday after a police raid on a property in Brighton in what is believed to be the first test of new legislation. Sussex Police dismantled barricades and entered the building in London Road following what the force said was the expiry of a 1.50pm deadline by the owner for suspected squatters to vacate the premises. Inside, police in protective gear found three people who had glued themselves together around a joist in the loft and two others had gone on to the roof. Two 22-year-olds and a 29-year-old were taken into custody while two other men, who were on the roof of the building, made their way down and were not arrested, according to police.

Mike Weatherley, the Conservative MP for Hove and Portslade, who has campaigned for a change in the law, welcomed the raid on Monday and said in a statement on his website that squatting is "a huge problem" in Brighton & Hove. He claimed that there had been "numerous instances of this organised and frequently menacing behaviour blighting the lives of ordinary people." The housing minister, Grant Shapps, said last week: "No longer will there be so-called squatters' rights. Instead … we're tipping the scales of justice back in favour of the homeowner and making the law crystal clear: entering a property with the intention of squatting will be a criminal offence."

It is refreshing to see that such a simple change to the law can allow home owners to remove illegal occupiers straight away without lengthy legal proceedings. This should be reassuring to anyone worried about the issue of squatters in their property.

Parkinson Property

21st September 2012

 

 
 
 
 
The National Approved Letting Scheme   The Property Ombudsman Lettings   Find details of all our properties at rightmove.co.uk - The UK's number one property website   The Deposit Protection Service