Are the days of ‘squatters rights’ numbered?

Buried deep within the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 is section 144 which makes it a criminal offence for a person to be in a residential building as a trespasser having entered as a trespasser.

Although this section has yet to come into force, the Government has hit back in the wake of a number of high profile squatting cases in recent years, such as the squatting of the Grade 1 listed home of Film Director, Guy Richie.

For an offence to be committed, the trespasser “must know or ought to know he or she is a trespasser” and that person must be living or intending to live in the building for any period.  Accordingly, those who occupy a property under a misapprehension – having been granted a ‘tenancy’ by a person they believed to be the landlord – are protected from criminal liability. Once convicted, a trespasser can expect a custodial sentence of no more than 51 weeks, or a fine of between £200 and £5000, or both.

No doubt this will be music to the ears of social housing providers, or is it?

Whilst on the face of it the threat of a custodial sentence should act as a deterrent, criminal sanctions for trespassing are nothing new:

(a).      under the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, it is a criminal offence punishable by up to 6 months imprisonment, or a fine, or both, where trespassers remain within residential, or non-residential property for more than 24 hours after service of an Interim Possession Order; and

(b).      under the Criminal Law Act 1977, it is a criminal offence to unlawfully occupy residential property where there is a “displaced occupier” (e.g. the owner/ occupier returning from holiday to find his home squatted) or “protected intended occupier” (e.g. a Housing Association tenant intending to take up a tenancy of the squatted property), in response to which the “occupier” may call the police, who will arrest the trespasser(s) without a possession order.

These criminal sanctions have not been a sufficient deterrent and so, why should the position be different when section 144 of the 2012 Act comes into force?

I suggest the answer lies with the Courts and the need for regular custodial sentences.

(Please note there is no offence committed under section 144 of the 2012 Act in respect of commercial property or land).