Indie: Criminalising squatting: Is it worth it?

Tony Gosling tony at
Thu Feb 9 20:20:11 GMT 2012

Criminalising squatting: Is it worth it?

    * By <>Jack Hewson
    * Thursday, 9 February 2012 at 12:00 am

Squatters haven’t 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 it’s a slightly ugly word and because 
people are slightly scared of squatters people 
don’t have that instant sympathy. But I’m 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 you’re 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 
we’re cutting legal aid to families and children 
why are we bailing out landlords?” said Baroness Miller.

So what then of all these poor people who’ve had 
their homes invaded? Surely the Daily Mail doesn’t just make these stories up?

Although it’s 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 
isn’t something to be scoffed at. If it happened to me I’d 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 don’t realise is that squatting 
somebody’s 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 don’t think that any 
trespasser or squatter I’ve ever evicted can have 
cost my client more than a couple of hundred quid.”

But what about these horror stories I’ve 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 don’t know is 
how they arrived in that situation. Did they get 
some bad advice? I don’t 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 don’t think I’ve 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 don’t 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 Britain’s 
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 what’s 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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