It has become a criminal offence to squat in a residential building. The offence is punishable by up to six months in prison or a fine of up to £5,000. It is necessary to prove the occupant entered as a trespasser, knows or ought to have known they were trespassing and is living or intends to live in the premises. The new offence came into effect on 1st September 2012 and is created by Section 144 of the Legal Aid Sentencing & Punishment of Offenders Act.
Under the previous law, a squatter’s failure to vacate residential premises 24 hours following service of an Interim Possession Order constituted a criminal offence. However, the police were often reluctant to become involved in what is a civil dispute.
Whether police involvement will be more readily forthcoming following the creation of the new offence remains to be seen. Historically, the police have been slow to become involved in private property matters. Where they have intervened, they often backed off when squatters asserted they had permission, even where damage to the property was occurring. This situation leaves owners having to resort to the civil courts, a time-consuming process with little (if any) prospect of recovering their outlay in terms of legal costs, lost rent or damages.
Squatters target commercial premises
The new law does not apply to commercial premises, open land nor to tenants overstaying after expiry of their lease.
As a consequence squatters are targeting these properties. Commercial property owners must still rely on the civil court procedure and are unlikely to recover their costs of doing so from squatters who are impecunious and often nameless.
The civil options take longer to pursue. An interim possession order once served takes effect after 24 hours and squatters who do not then leave are committing a criminal offence. A standard possession claim requires a Court hearing and assuming a possession order is granted, the bailiffs can be instructed to evict occupiers who remain.
It is therefore important to keep commercial premises secure when unoccupied and consider arranging regular security visits.
The Government is keeping the position with regard to commercial premises under review.
CPS data indicates that there were around about 70 prosecutions in the months up to July of this year. The majority of those convicted under the new legislation were fined around £100. This may not therefore be much of a deterrent.
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