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Squatting becomes a criminal offence

New legislation has been introduced to offer better protection for home owners and allows the Court to punish such offences by imposing up to 6 months imprisonment or a £5,000 fine or both.  Ministers said that it will "Slam shut the door on squatters once and for all".

Prior to the 1st September 2012 squatting was an issue dealt with by the Civil Courts, and homeowners, whether they be individuals, Councils or Housing Associations would have to take proceedings in the Civil Court to prove that those occupying their properties had trespassed before action could be taken to evict them.  As from 1st September it will be a criminal offence and anyone whose home is occupied without permission can register a complaint with police who, following enquiries to satisfy themselves that the claim is genuine, can take action to arrest any illegal occupants.  The new law also provides protection to those who own vacant residential properties.  To prosecute Police must prove that a person knowingly entered a residential building as a trespasser and 'is living or intends to live' in it.  A person previously occupying the property lawfully who may get into arrears with their rent or stay in the premises beyond the end of a lease of tenancy would not be committing an offence.  However the new law will apply to those existing squatters who were in occupation of property at the time of the change in law and this was hoped to prevent any last minute 'rush' of people trying to occupy residential premises prior to the law coming into force.

The Housing Minister at the time of the introduction of the new legislation, Grant Shapps, said "For too long hard working people have faced long legal battles to get their homes back from squatters, and repair bills reaching into the thousands when they finally leave.  No longer will there be so-called squatters rights.  Instead .... we are tipping the scales of justice in favour of the homeowner and making the law crystal clear:  entering a property with the intention of squatting will be a criminal offence".

However the new legislation has been criticised by some.

A spokesman for Squatters Action for Secure Housing told the BBC "What we need is to tackle the housing crisis and not criminalise some of the most vulnerable people in our society".  Leslie Morphy from Crisis, the homeless charity, said that the new law "will do nothing to address the underlying reasons why vulnerable people squat in the first place - their homelessness and the lack of affordable housing".

It is fair to say that the new legislation has been met with a mixed reaction.  The Association of Chief Police Officers welcomed the new legislation saying that the police could 'now act immediately and remove squatters directly from properties'.  The Criminal Bar Association and the Law Society are both opposed to the new law arguing that the existing offences were more than adequate to deal with what they describe as a rare problem.  Section 7 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 already makes it a criminal offence for a squatter to remain in a residential building after the owner has asked them to leave.  Additional concerns have been raised as to the enforcement of the new offence; previously landowners would have to fund the removal of squatters from their land but the new Act shifts this responsibility to the police and the public purse.  The Law Society questions whether the police will have the resources to enforce the new offence given that they appeared reluctant to enforce the pre-existing laws.

However, under Section 6 of the Criminal Law Act 1977, a landlord will still be committing a criminal offence if they use or threaten force in order to gain entry to a property where a squatter inside is opposed to their entry.   

The Residential Landlords' Association and the British Property Federation have both given their support to the new law.  The National Landlords' Association indicated that in their view the pre-existing law was inadequate but did not believe that banning all types of squatting was the correct solution.

This is not legal advice; it is intended to provide information of general interest about current legal issues.