Squatting in residential premises will become a criminal offence from 1 September 2012. Recent high-profile cases have brought the issue to the forefront including one property reputedly belonging to Chelsea FC owner Roman Abramovich’s ex-wife, Irina, and more recently in March squatters moved into a property worth £1.6million owned by the infamous footballer Joey Barton.
The hope is that, by criminalising squatting, landlords should save a substantial amount of money in legal fees as the police force would take a much greater role in the eviction of squatters. The new offence will make it more difficult for trespassers to assert that they have ‘squatters rights’ in respect of residential buildings because their occupation of the building will now be a criminal act.
Under the current civil regime a landlord has two options available to them;
- The standard possession proceedings route; or
- An interim possession order.
The former can take around two months to obtain an eviction date and the latter, although much quicker, can prove to be costly for landlords with two court hearings and more complex documentation required. The new process should be much more straightforward and faster for landlords to successfully remove squatters.
The offence will not be applied retrospectively, so known squatters will not be liable to prosecution unless they continue to squat in residential buildings on or after 1st September 2012.
Interpretation of the new law will become clearer as the legislation starts to be applied. An important starting place is the definition of what makes a building residential. A building under the new legislation will be classed as residential if it is designed or adapted, before the time of entry, for use as a place to live. The new offence will not extend to those who have remained in occupation of residential premises following the expiry of their lease or licence. A landlord would be expected to pursue the established eviction processes outlined above in the county court (or High Court where appropriate) if they wanted to regain possession of their property in such circumstances.
The government have decided that the penalties upon conviction of the offence can be a prison sentence up to 6 months and/or a fine not exceeding £5,000. In practice will the police actually fine and sentence offenders or will the threat of criminal sanctions act as a sufficient deterrent?
Will the new legislation put landlords of commercial property at a greater risk with a potential influx of squatters no longer choosing to squat in residential properties? The legislation is likely to reduce instances of squatting but not eradicate it altogether. Landlords should seek to avoid long periods without occupancy of their property and continue investment in preventative security measures. If the legislation does prove successful than it is very likely that, in the future, the legislation will be amended to include commercial property.
Wills & Probate Department
Blacks Solicitors LLP