On the first of last month (September), squatting in a residential property became a criminal offence. For many, this reform has been a long time coming; to others, it is a measure that promises more than it is likely to deliver. Previously, occupying another’s residential property was not a criminal offence in itself, although criminal acts-such as breaking and entering-could be committed in the process. Squatting only became a criminal act if the squatters were served either a notice to leave or an interim possession order and refused to comply with it.

But Section 144 of The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, which received Royal Assent in May, created a new criminal offence of squatting in a residential building that is punishable by up to six months in prison and/or a fine of up to £5,000. A person commits this offence if he is in a residential building having entered as a trespasser and knows, or ought to have known, that he is a trespasser, and is living, or intends to live, there. Tenants who refuse to vacate a property once when lease runs out are not committing a criminal offence.

‘This reform was long overdue,’ says Hugh Dunsmore-Hardy, a non-executive director at Winkworth. ‘In the past, some foreign investors might have thought twice about investing in buy-to-let had they read about the risks of squatters and the legal process involved in getting one’s property back, but, hopefully, this will quash investors fears.’

Rupert Oliver in Knight Frank’s Bristol office describes squatters ‘as an owner’s nightmare because the law sided with the occupants. It was often hard to determine if the occupation was “legal”, and the legal owner of the property had to jump through a succession of hoops to evict them.

A recent example in Clifton, Bristol, took several months from first knowledge to eventual vacant possession. During this time, the house was damaged, with smashed windows and the attempted removal of leading, and a rave was held there one night with more than 400 partygoers. The sorriest story in all of this was the inability of the police to help. Even during the rave they didn’t want to step in, fearing a riot and further damage if they did so’.

 

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The new law, however, requires the involvement of the police, and many lawyers doubt that this will be readily forthcoming. ‘It is certainly a respectable argument that we did not need a new criminal offence, but rather needed the existing law (both criminal and civil) to be enforced consistently and effectively,’ says Caroline DeLaney, a partner at Kingsley Napley. ‘The new offence is of limited value. You potentially have a quick fix to remove occupiers, but I wonder how many squatters will produce a so-called tenancy agreement when challenged by the police. In the absence of evidence of forced entry, I am sceptical about how willing the police will be to actually use their powers.’

Richard Hanson of Mills & Reeve, who describes the reform as ‘a damp squib shoved into an Act that has little to do with property rights’, points out that ‘the police have tended not to be interested in getting involved in what they see as a private property matter. If they do intervene, they have normally backed off when presented with contrary evidence from the squatters-and it’s easy for squatters to say they have permission’.

The reforms have been criticised for both going too far and not far enough. Homeless charities and human-rights activists have complained at what they see as a draconian measure. Others have questioned why the reform does not include commercial properties. The majority of squatting is carried out in these places, and owners of non-residential properties fear that squatters will now increasingly target these places instead.

Such owners will still have to go through the slow and expensive civil procedure of eviction. But, says Mr Dunsmore-Hardy: ‘Any improvement on the current system will be welcomed by homeowners, who are always the losers in this battle. Even if their house is occupied for only a fraction of a second, it’s too long, as, over a short space of time, a lot of money and, most importantly, emotional energy, can be expended.’

Need to know

* Squatting is a now an offence

* Tenants who refuse to vacate after their lease runs out are not included in the Ac

* Police now have the power to remove occupier

* The Act does not cover commercial properties