Squatters in residential properties will now face criminal charges

The government has introduced a new criminal offence of squatting in residential premises to increase the protection available to owners and occupiers of residential premises.

Previously, the criminal law contained some protection for people who had been prevented from occupying their homes by a squatter or who intended to occupy a property and who had a freehold interest, a tenancy of at least two years or was a local authority tenant. There was however no protection for commercial landlords or local authorities, who had to bring civil proceedings to regain possession of their properties.

The new offence extends the law, and is tucked away in the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. Section 144 of the 2012 Act provides that a person will commit the offence if:

  • they are in a residential building as a trespasser;
  • they know or ought to know that they are a trespasser;
  • and they are living in the building or intend to live there for any period.

It is no longer a requirement that the lawful occupier be displaced by the squatter, or that the lawful occupier should wish to go back into occupation. All squatters in residential premises will be caught by the provision. The new law will also apply to squatters, whether they took occupation before the new offence comes into force or afterwards.

The government estimates that 50% of squatting takes place in residential buildings with the other 50% on open land or commercial buildings. Squatting in commercial buildings is not covered by the new law although the government has committed to keeping this under review.

It remains to be seen whether the new offence will result in a shift of cases from the civil to the criminal courts, and whether the police will have sufficient time and resources to deal with cases promptly and efficiently. Withers will continue to assist clients to obtain possession in the quickest and most cost efficient method and so that as little damage is caused to the client’s property as possible.

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