Squat comes around…

New law gives homeowners the edge in battle against squatters, but legal challenges are likely

Michelle Freyne

On 19 September a 21-year-old man who had been squatting in a London property became the first person to be jailed under the Government’s anti-squatting legislation.

Until 1 September a property owner or occupier could only evict a squatter from residential property by either squatter possession proceedings in the local county court or by arrest by the police, subject to the limited circumstances laid out in section 7 of the Criminal Law Act 1977.

On 1 September legislation came into force that made squatting in a residential building a criminal offence, with squatters now facing up to six months in jail and/or a fine of up to £5,000.

Section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 provides that a person commits an offence if: the person is in a residential building as a trespasser having entered as a trespasser; the person knows or ought to know that he or she is a trespasser; and the person is living in the building or intends to live there for any period.

A ‘building’ is defined as including any structure or part of a structure (including a temporary or moveable structure) and a building is ‘residential’ if it is designated or adapted, before the time of entry, for use as a place to live.

A curious exemption from the legislation is that an offence is not committed by a person holding over after the end of a lease or licence, even if the person leaves and re-enters the building.

Section 17 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 has also been amended to give police constables the power to enter and search any premises for the purpose of arresting a person for an offence under section 144.

The important question now is whether the new legislation will be effective, and the early indications are positive.

In the first case of its kind, three people were arrested on 2 September squatting in a flat in Pimlico. All three were charged with, and later pleaded guilty to, squatting. Westminster Magistrates’ Court jailed 21 year-old Alex Haigh for 12 weeks while another squatter, 46-year-old Anthony Ismond, was fined £100 and recalled to prison on breach of licence. The third squatter, 33-year-old Michelle Blake, remains to be sentenced.

A client obtained possession of a flat in Ealing on 4 September 2012 after the police arrested the squatter. It helped clarify the extent of the police’s new powers that the client was able to present to the police office copy entries of her title to the flat, together with copies of section 144 and section 17.

It is fair to say that the main squatting advisory websites are not happy about the new legislation. However, the good news for property owners is that they are now advising against squatting in residential buildings although, as one would perhaps expect, they are also looking for opportunities to challenge the new law in court.

Howard Kennedy chartered legal executive Peter Ling assisted with this article