Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Squatters - Evicted + Convicted = Problem Shifted!

Owners of a non-residential building should be very concerned about the increased potential for squatting, and must think very carefully about securing their buildings or possibly trying to dispose of it 

Source: Google Images
Section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 creates a new offence of squatting in a residential building, which applies throughout England and Wales.  The offence came into force on 1st September 2012. 

A Ministry of Justice Circular,  issued as guidance to Law Enforcement Authorities, provides clarification of the offence:
'A person can only commit the offence if they have entered and remain in the residential building as a trespasser. This means the offence will not apply to a person who entered the building with permission of the property owner, such as a legitimate tenant. This is so even if a legitimate tenant subsequently falls behind with rent payments or decides to withhold rent. Such a person is not a trespasser for the purposes of this offence. A property owner would be expected to pursue established eviction processes in the county court (or High Court where appropriate) if they wanted to regain possession of their property in such circumstances' 
It is therefore clear that the purpose of this new law is not aimed as a vehicle to help landlords to deal with problematic tenants.  The new law has been introduced to try to re-balance the rights of residential property owners who for many years have needed to use the civil justice system to remove squatters from their buildings.  For many years it has always seemed unfair that a person can claim 'squatters rights' for unauthorised occupation of a building.  The term 'squatters rights' is well know and regularly used, and demonstrates by its very nature the unfairness it allows.  Why should a squatter be allowed any rights for a building that is owned and paid for by someone else?  This new law attempts to address this injustice.

Prior to the introduction of this new law the unauthorised occupation of a building was still an offence.  The difference now however is that the offence becomes criminal and not just civil.  As a criminal offence the police now have powers to remove squatters and also prosecute. The offence of squatting in a residential building carries a maximum penalty of six months' imprisonment, a fine of up to £5,000 or both.  The Ministry of Justice Circular identified above also identifies a range of other offences which might arise in connection with squatting, depending on the circumstances of the case.  'If doors or windows of the property have been broken to gain access or items inside have been used damaged or removed, the offences of criminal damage, theft or burglary might be relevant. There is also an offence of ‘abstracting electricity’ under section 13 of the Theft Act 1968, which is committed when somebody dishonestly and without due authority causes to be wasted or diverted electricity'. One would argue that the days of forcibly entering a residential building and occupying without permission are now coming to an end.

Surprisingly, the new offence only relates to residential buildings.  It seems strange that the new law did not cover all buildings.  The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 provides the following definition of a residential building:
'Subsection (3) defines the meaning of residential building. This includes any structure or part of a structure which has been designed or adapted for use as a place to live. This includes temporary or moveable structures to ensure the offence covers homes such as park homes, caravans or residential pre-fabs. The building must have been designed or adapted before the time of entry, for use as a place to live. This will ensure that where, for example, a barn has been converted into a country house or offices into flats, such buildings will be protected by the offence. But a trespasser who modifies a non-residential building by placing his bedding and personal effects in it would not be committing this offence because the building had not been adapted before the point he or she entered it.'

Source: Google Images
A recent article in The Guardian Online (31st August 2012), claimed that an end to squatters rights could lead to a large increase in homelessness.  The article suggests that the introduction of this new law could result in the displacement of over 20,000 people.  In July 2012 the housing and homeless charity, Shelter, reported 12,830 homeless applications were accepted between October and December 2011 - a rise of 18% since the same time the previous year.  The law change will undoubtably increase these figures further once the police start to exercise their new powers and start removing and prosecuting squatters.  So where will all of these people go?

Well, as the new law only applies to residential buildings, which as the definition above states, 'have been designed or adapted for use as a place to live'.  Any building classified as a non-residential building under the terms of the Act is not covered and it is still possible to claim squatters rights in these types of buildings.  Before legislation is passed it goes through numerous stages in Parliament.  It will have a number of readings and be debated thoroughly including being passed to the House of Lords before it eventually gets Royal Assent. You would think that somewhere along this process somebody would have questioned why the law would not apply to all buildings, not just residential.  It seems strange that the law can be 'tightened up' in one area, but literally leave the door wide open (pardon the pun), for the problem to be shifted to another.  What is there to stop a squatter being removed from a residential building under the powers of the new Act, and then literally moving down the road to find themselves a nice little vacant shop, industrial unit or other non-residential building?  Surely, this law change has the potential to shift the problem, not solve it!  

If I were an owner of a non-residential building I would be very concerned about the increased potential for squatting, and have to think very carefully about securing the building or possibly trying to dispose of it.  In today's economic climate, disposing of a non-residential building will not be easy, as the UK has a vast amount of vacant and unoccupied stock.  I am sure that the impact of the law change will make many non-residential building owners think very carefully about their assets.

Information/opinions posted on this site are the personal views of the author and should not be relied upon by any person or any third party without first seeking further professional advice. Also, please scroll down and read the copyright notice at the end of the blog.

No comments:

Post a Comment