From 1st September 2012, squatting in a residential property became a criminal offence (Section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (‘LASPO’)). It should be noted that this new law only applies to residential property. Squatting in a commercial or non-residential property will remain a civil offence alone.
The Criminal Law Act 1977 afforded protection to squatters. The consequence was that a property owner or someone with an immediate right to possession of a property which had been taken over by a squatter, was forced to issue legal proceedings and bring a civil claim for an Interim Possession Order (‘IPO’). In order to obtain an IPO, the claimant would have to prove that the squatters had trespassed and were living in the property unlawfully. This necessitated written evidence and a relatively complex and costly legal procedure which was also time sensitive. The property owner could easily find that their property was occupied by the squatters for weeks, if not months, before the legal process allowed eviction.
The new law states that a person commits a criminal offence if they are in a residential building as a trespasser having entered as a trespasser, they know or ought to have known that they are a trespasser and they are living in the building or intend to live there for any period. Anyone found guilty of this offence is liable to imprisonment for a maximum period of 6 months, a maximum fine of £5,000, or both. Section 144 LASPO Act 2012 will be enforceable against those who entered a residential building unlawfully before or after 1st September 2012.
A potential problem has been identified in the drafting of the legislation. Unfortunately and unlike the Criminal Law Act 1977, Section 144 LASPO Act 2012 has not been drafted to cover gardens. It may therefore be possible for squatters to leave the house but remain in the garden. The owner would then have to resort to the civil law to evict them from the garden.
The change in the law is good news for all owners and mortgagees of residential property. Section 144 LASPO Act 2012 will speed up the process of removing squatters from those properties which have been entered unlawfully. It will also reduce the legal costs associated with squatters. Property owners/mortgagees will have to contact the local Police, who are then able to raid a building on suspicion of it being occupied by squatters, remove them and make an arrest. The property owner/mortgagee may experience a delay in the removal of squatters, as the Police may seek to work with the local authority as it has a duty to help the homeless find accommodation.
For further information please contact Georgina Squire or the Partner with whom you usually deal.