Indie: Criminalising squatting: Is it worth it?
tony at cultureshop.org.uk
Thu Feb 9 20:20:11 GMT 2012
Criminalising squatting: Is it worth it?
* By <http://blogs.independent.co.uk/author/jack-hewson/>Jack Hewson
* Thursday, 9 February 2012 at 12:00 am
Squatters havent received the most glowing press
over the past year. Various cases of displaced
property-owners have been seized upon by the
right wing press, creating an impression that
Britain is beseiged by hoards of rights-savvy
vagrants intent on dishousing honest folk.
The same scare-mongerers tell us that the current
law is inadequate to deal with the problem. There
is a public fear that you could come home to find
a family of people supping your wine and be
powerless to do anything about it. It is in this
climate that the push to criminalise squatting
has found traction. If approved clause 130 of the
Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders
Bill (LASPO) will leave squatters open to a
maximum one year jail sentence or £5000 fine.
Advocates of the new law see it as a necessary
deterrent to protect property owners against
opportunist squatters. But those who oppose it
claim the measures are ill thought-out and would
only criminalise the homeless and empower exploitative landlords.
Pushing to shelve the clause in the House of
Lords today Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer
will argue that the current law is perfectly
adequate and that criminalisation would slow down
legal procedure and saddle the tax-payer with the bill.
Because its a slightly ugly word and because
people are slightly scared of squatters people
dont have that instant sympathy. But Im hoping
that the two rational arguments: one, why are we
spending money on this and two, that there is
adequate legislation in place already, will
change hearts and minds, she said earlier this week.
At present squatting is dealt with under civil
law which deals with disputes between
individuals. If you find someone squatting your
house you have to foot the bill to turf them out.
But if squatting becomes a criminal offence it
becomes a crime against the state. This means
the crime of squatting would be prosecuted by the
Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and paid for by the taxpayer.
In the Legal Aid Bill, everything in it is to do
with cuts, everything is to save money. This is
one of the only [clauses] which involves spending
millions more. It sits very oddly in a bill which
is all about reducing costs, she said.
There is a misperception that most victims of
squatting are homeowners without the resources to
pay for expensive evictions. In actual fact it is
a scenario far more commonly faced by landlords.
If youre a landlord with a few houses, spending
a few hundred pounds on a possession order to
evict squatters is annoying, but in a bill where
were cutting legal aid to families and children
why are we bailing out landlords? said Baroness Miller.
So what then of all these poor people whove had
their homes invaded? Surely the Daily Mail doesnt just make these stories up?
Although its true that private property owners
have fallen victim to opportunist squatters, in
actual fact nearly all of such cases were of
occupations of empty properties which had
recently been bought or inherited. This of course
isnt something to be scoffed at. If it happened to me Id be livid.
But how commonly does this occur and is Baroness
Miller right when she says the current law is
adequate to deal with the problem?
What most people dont realise is that squatting
somebodys home is already a criminal offence
under the Criminal Law Act 1977. Under the act a
resident pushed out of their home is classed as a
displaced residential occupier (DRO), or if
they are intending to move into the property, a
protected intended occupier (PIO). Removing
squatters in these circumstances ought to be
quick and easy but often the law is misunderstood
even by the Police themselves.
You can get squatters out of residential
properties in a couple of days, said specialist
housing barrister Justin Bates, who is one of 170
legal professionals who signed an open letter to
the Guardian protesting against media distortion
of the squatter issue. I dont think that any
trespasser or squatter Ive ever evicted can have
cost my client more than a couple of hundred quid.
But what about these horror stories Ive heard in
which evictions take weeks and cost thousands of pounds?
Am I saying every single person in the country
gets their squatter out for £300 and in two
weeks? No of course not. But what I dont know is
how they arrived in that situation. Did they get
some bad advice? I dont know what lawyers they
consulted and what they were told, said Mr Bates.
There is no aggregated data on the number of DRO
or PIO cases going through the courts in England
every year, but according to Mr Bates they are rare.
I dont think Ive ever done one, he said. I
think from talking to friends who signed that
letter in the Guardian, out of the 170 of us,
[there were] maybe ten [instances] that we know
of. Partly because I really dont think this
spate of residential squatting is actually going on.
Perhaps one of the most absurd peculiarities of
the proposed legislation is that it is likely to
lengthen the time it takes to evict squatters.
Prosecuted under civil law squatters can be
removed with an interim possession order in just
a couple of days, but going through the CPS this could take weeks.
The only DRO case that I am aware of that of
High, who did actually return home to find a
family of Romanian gypsies sitting in her living
room last year was processed in less than 24 hours.
Is it wise to complicate what is already an effective procedure?
Regardless of the impracticalities of actually
enforcing a new law, clause 130 of LASPO could
also cause considerable hardship for a lot of very vulnerable people.
If the legislation comes into force it would
allow dodgy landlords use the police to evict
tenants by claiming that they are squatters. Many
people at the bottom of the rental market would
be open to exploitation. Thousands of Britains
homeless population could also be affected 40
per cent of single homeless people have squatted
at some point, all of whom could be open to a
criminal record under these plans.
On some levels it seems like an open and shut
case there ought to be a criminal sanction
against people trying to use whats not theirs.
But the implications of criminalisation go way
beyond providing retribution for a handful of disgruntled homeowners.
Is it really worth it?
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