Criminal Sanctions for Squatting
With effect from 1 September 2012, squatting became a criminal offence in England and Wales. Any individual convicted will face up to six months in prison, a fine of up to £5,000, or a combination of both.
Squatters are often guilty of a criminal offence by virtue of the means by which they obtain access to the property in question. For example, if an individual breaks into a property, they commit the offence of breaking and entering. They can be removed from the property by the police. In practice, however, squatting has long been viewed by the police as a civil, rather than criminal, matter. This stems from the fact that trespass itself is not a criminal offence in England and Wales. It is merely a tort (a “civil wrong”), actionable in the civil courts. There are exceptions to this for certain categories of land, such as government property. This meant that landowners faced with squatters had to bring a claim in the civil courts to remove them.
The new offence is created by section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. The offence is commissioned by the squatter:
- being in a residential building as a trespasser, having entered it as a trespasser;
- where he or she knows or ought to know that he or she is a trespasser; and
- where he or she is living in the building or has the intention to live there for any period.
For these purposes, a “building” is any structure or part of a structure. That includes temporary or moveable structures. A building is “residential” in this context if it is designed or adapted, before the time the squatter enters it, for use as a place to live. It is irrelevant whether the squatter entered the building before or after 1 September 2012. However, the offence does not apply to those who squatted at some point in the past and have now vacated their squat. Importantly, landlords must bear in mind that the offence is not committed by a lawful occupier who holds over after the end of his or her lease or licence, even if that person leaves and re-enters the premises.
The criminalisation of squatting represents a victory for property owners confronted with the problem of squatters. However, its usefulness is limited in that it only deals with residential premises. Owners of purely commercial premises will not benefit. Arguably, however, such owners are better placed to prevent squatters gaining entry in the first place. They are generally able to employ security staff and install more sophisticated security systems. In some ways the law now seeks to protect more vulnerable property owners. That being said, any owner can benefit from the new law if the premises in question are residential, be they owner-occupiers, large institutional landlords or public authorities.
This guide is for general information and interest only and should not be relied upon as providing specific legal advice. If you require any further information about the issues raised in this article please contact the author or call 020 7404 0606 and ask for your usual Goodman Derrick contact.