On Friday 1st September 2012, squatting in a residential building became a criminal offence under section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act.
Historically, squatting in a vacant building has been a civil offence. There has previously been some protection in the criminal law system for people actually in occupation and those intending to occupy.
Under the new criminal law, a homeowner can complain to the police, who, if satisfied that the claim is genuine, can take action and arrest the squatters. Anyone found guilty of squatting could face a maximum prison term of up to six months, a maximum £5,000 fine, or both.
Police must prove that a person knowingly entered a building as a trespasser and “is living or intends to live” in it. Note that someone who falls behind with their rent or remains in a property at the end of a lease or tenancy would not be committing an offence under the new law as the offence only captures those whose original entry and occupation of the building was unauthorised. Property owners will need to pursue the established eviction processes in the county court (or High Court where appropriate) if they wanted to regain possession of their property in these circumstances.
The new law is designed to protect residential homeowners. However, with homeless charities highlighting the thousands of empty or abandoned properties in England and Wales, it is clear that it is not without controversy – and we can expect to see some challenges and appeals.
Email us or call 0115 985 3450 for more information or advice.