The Government has bowed to pressure to make squatting at residential premises a criminal offence
Legislation to this effect is to be introduced in a late change to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill. Whilst undoubtedly this will earn positive headlines in the press, questions remain as to how effective this measure will be.
The criticism that has been levelled at the current process for removing squatters from both residential and commercial premises is:
- the length of time that the process takes
- during the period of gaining possession, some squatters cause criminal damage
The police generally see such matters as purely civil and are reluctant to get involved, even if criminal damage can be proved. It is frustrating for home and property owners alike and this is why we hear references to 'squatters' rights' - a myth which arises from the time it takes to remove squatters and the reluctance of the police to get involved.
It would seem that an opportunity has been missed to have a radical rethink of the whole procedure around obtaining possession of premises from squatters. Under the current rules, unless a judge authorises that the case should be expedited, at least five full working days notice of the Court hearing has to be given to the squatters in residential premises and two working days notice for commercial premises.
Obtaining a court hearing date within a short timescale is often problematic with some courts not able to offer a hearing date for several weeks or, in some cases, several months. Then, once the court order is obtained, it needs to be put to the top of the bailiff's lists for execution and, as is always the case during difficult economic times, bailiffs are very busy.
The combination of the length of the court process and the time for a case to get to the top of the bailiff's list usually means that at the very quickest a fortnight, and often longer, passes from the lawyers first getting involved and the squatters being removed.
The question arises, with the police already over stretched, will they have sufficient resources to deal promptly with squatters who refuse to leave? Only if the police are in a position to enforce this criminal law within a short period of time will the proposal have any practical effect on the ground.
After all, home owners and landowners are less concerned about the fate of the squatters than they are about the speed with which they can be ejected from the property that they unlawfully occupy.