High court enforcement officer: 'don't criminalise squatting'

Tony Gosling tony at cultureshop.org.uk
Wed Jul 6 22:27:17 BST 2011

Criminalising squatting will merely make the problem worse

Today's police are neither trained nor equipped 
to deal with evictions. We need a simpler, not tougher, system
Claire Sandbrook - guardian.co.uk, Monday 4 July 2011 22.29 BST

Your report on the government's intention to 
consult on proposals to criminalise squatting in 
England and Wales focused largely on the views of 
housing charities (Making squatting criminal will 
hit homeless, charities warn, 25 June). Such a 
move risks "dragging some of the country's most 
vulnerable people through the justice system". 
Katharine Sacks-Jones of the charity Crisis said 
many are squatting "because they simply don't have another choice".

As a high court enforcement officer, I have many 
years of first-hand experience in dealing with 
squatters, protesters and other forms of 
trespasser. I do not support the act of trespass 
in any form – but neither do I support the criminalisation of squatting.

I agree with Sacks-Jones that criminal 
punishments handed out against squatters would be 
"counterproductive" and are "not going to address 
the underlying problems that these people face"; 
they would be no deterrent to hardcore squatters 
and activists, while simultaneously imposing 
greater burdens on the truly vulnerable.

Furthermore, the actions necessary to remove the 
squatters would take up an inordinate amount of 
ever-diminishing police resources and impose 
further demands on a criminal courts system 
already stretched to breaking point – 
particularly if, as reported in the article, "the 
government's estimate of 20,000 squatters in the 
UK is likely to be a significant underestimate". 
The police are currently neither trained nor 
equipped to deal with many of the situations they 
will face when evicting highly organised squatters.

The fact that criminalisation puts squatters' 
liberty at risk could make them eligible for 
criminal legal aid (after being stripped of their 
right to civil legal aid under the government's 
recent announcement). This confusion would place 
further burdens on the shrinking legal aid budget.

The article rightly states that many of the 
actions used by the government to justify 
changing their approach are already criminal acts 
under existing legislation. Instead of 
criminalising squatting, civil court processes 
for obtaining and enforcing eviction orders 
should be made far simpler and quicker: property 
owners who have had their premises squatted in 
will know how many weeks it can take to get the 
necessary orders through the courts, and then 
waiting for those orders to be enforced.

The public would be better served by having a 
process that enables the necessary orders to be 
obtained and swiftly passed on to high court 
enforcement officers, thereby ensuring that the 
squatters are evicted lawfully and effectively by 
people skilled in dealing with such situations. 
These officers already have considerable powers 
and the police are under a legal duty to assist 
them so that any possible public order issues could be dealt with.

Yes, it is time to get tough on squatters. But 
making it illegal is not the answer, and will 
just make things worse. Thinking smarter can 
sometimes have a far more beneficial effect than just thinking tougher.
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