Squatting in residential premises will be a criminal offence from 1 September 2012, giving property owners an alternative means of getting their property back.
The offence captures those squatters who are already in occupation on 1 September 2012, and not just those who enter into occupation after this date.
The wording of the offence is detailed and there may be disputes over the meaning of some phrases.
A person commits an offence if:
- the person is in a residential building as a trespasser having entered it as a trespasser
- the person knows or ought to know that he or she is a trespasser
- the person is living in the building or intends to live there for any period
An area for dispute may be whether it will always be obvious that a person knows or 'ought to know' they are a trespasser? And what has to be shown in order to demonstrate that a person 'intends' to live in a building for any period? Indeed, how long is a period?
Given these uncertainties, an already stretched police force may well be reluctant to enforce this offence in any but the clearest of circumstances.
Getting the property back
Although it remains to be seen exactly what will happen in practice, it is likely that an attending police officer will have to make a quick judgment on whether an offence has been committed, then arrest the trespasser and take him/her to the police station.
Of course, the more squatters there are, the longer this process is likely to take and reinforcements may be needed. To prevent re-entry, the property owner is advised to immediately survey the property to check for the point of entry, have a locksmith change the locks, and secure the property.
The penalties on conviction of the offence are a prison sentence up to 51 weeks and/or a fine not exceeding £5,000.
Although these will be a deterrent to most, squatting is often a result of destitution and homelessness, so necessity is likely to override concerns about the consequences of getting caught.
On the other hand, this new offence should give peace of mind to those who leave their homes and return to find them occupied by trespassing strangers.
They will now have someone to call other than their solicitors to issue civil proceedings, and will hopefully achieve a much quicker and cheaper eviction than has so far been the case.
The new offence does not extend to those who have remained in occupation of residential premises following the expiry of their lease or licence. Neither does it cover commercial properties. In these circumstances, property owners will still have to rely on the civil system to obtain possession.