Government anti-squatting law
In June 2011 the Government announced it's intention to bring in legislation at the start of 2012 to make occupying a private property illegally a criminal offence. Up until now, squatters have been enabled to stay in a property (on the grounds that there was access) in accordance with Section 6 of the Criminal Law Act 1977, as amended by the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, as the matter of access to a premise which was empty is a civil matter between the property owner and the occupant (it does not apply to homeowners trying to get back into their own homes).
This is despite the fact that legislation already exists to protect residents from having their home squatted, namely Section 7 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 in which it is already a criminal offence to squat someone’s home. Last September, 158 leading legal figures wrote an open letter which was published in The Guardian highlighting this fact.
However, the proposed legislation was designed to change trespass from being a civil to a criminal offence, conceived to prevent 'unlawful entry into empty housing', meaning the police could now be able to enter a property by force and evict the occupants within days, affecting peoples' traditional right to settle in abandoned buildings. Critics immediately understood that this would have impacts on the most vulnerable people in society, empower unscrupulous landlords and burden the justice system, police and charities. For detailed information, the superb Squash Campaign has been providing resources on these impacts to raise awareness on the proposed changes. Detailed summary can be found here.
Critics pointed out that this new law will criminalise homelessness and the vulnerably housed. A study by Sheffield Hallam University said ending so-called squatter's rights would criminalise homeless people who usually occupied disused or abandoned properties as a last resort after being turned away from hostels and shelters.
Homeless charity Crisis, trade unionists and student leaders have warned that the new powers making trespass a criminal rather than a civil offence could also outlaw occupation-style protests and sit-ins and lead to some of the most vulnerable homeless people sleeping rough.
On Tuesday 1st November, the government passed a bill in the House of Commons (the Legal Aid and Sentencing Bill) which included a new law added onto the bill at the last minute to make squatting of residential property a “criminal offence” with up to 51 weeks imprisonment.
In the government attaching this amendment onto the bill at the last minute, they in effect bypassed the democratic process in not allowing any meaningful opportunity for public debate on the specific proposal in advance of the time alloted for the bill except the immediate debate ahead of the parliamentary vote, having also ignored the results of their own consultation (Ministry of Justice) ‘Options for Dealing with Squatters’ which came to an end on October 5th 2011. Of 2,217 responses, over 90% of responses argued against taking any action on squatting (results table published on Squash’s website).
Meanwhile, separate to this but worth mentioning in this context, proposed changes to remove legal aid to people trespassing on land will according to the Community Law Partnership negatively affect the Gypsy & Traveller community in large numbers. Read here.
On the evening of Wednesday 14th March, the proposed new law to criminalise squatting in residential properties (clause 130 of the LASPO Bill) was debated in the House of Lords. This was, in fact, the first time the clause has been properly debated since it was proposed.
Nevertheless, in the House of Lords debate Baroness Sue Miller, Baroness Stern, Lord Judd and Lord Bach all spoke in opposition to the clause. Some key points were convincingly made by all of them.
Firstly, all the peers that spoke against the clause agreed that the existing law adequately protects property owners and that a new criminal offence would be nothing but a form of propaganda. People displaced from their homes by squatters are already fully protected by the 1977 Criminal Law Act that protects displaced residential occupiers (DROs) and protected intending occupiers (PIOs) by making it a criminal offence to squat someone else’s home.
Lord Bach (Labour’s Justice spokesman) said “It is very telling that the Metropolitan Police, the Bar Council and the Law Society, none of which are natural friends of the squatting community, all think that bringing this particular legislation is completely unnecessary.”
Baroness Stern, a cross-bencher, clearly stated that the creation of a new criminal offence, far from being a solution to an unclear issue, also contradicts the Government’s promise not to create new unnecessary offences.
Secondly, both Baroness Miller (Lib-Dem) and Lord Bach (Labour’s Justice Spokesman) argued that, given the existence of a clear law on squatting related issues, the new offence appears to be motivated by the negative and manipulative press campaign that some newspapers have been waging over the past year.
Peers from across the spectrum seem keen to oppose the clause by endorsing the spirit of Baroness Miller’s amendment to exclude long-term empty property from the proposals. So far two amendments we support have been proposed by some Lords. The first, would strike the clause entirely and the second, tabled by John Mcdonnell MP and Homeless Charity Crisis previously in the Commons, states that any new law only covers residential property left empty for less than 6 months.
Proposed Change in the law to Criminalise Squatting - why this is bad:
The proposed legislation will have impacts on the most vulnerable people in society, will empower unscrupulous landlords and will burden the justice system, police and charities. This is about more than just squatting: this will exacerbate the current housing crisis, erode tenants rights, and remove a fundamental right to protest.
The proposed laws could affect:
- Tenants accused by landlords of being squatters for being behind with rent
- Students and workers' occupations of workplaces
- Rights to protest and peacecamps, vigils ..etc
- Squatters, Gypsies, Travellers, the homeless, poor and vulnerable
Let us not forget the UK's own rich history of squatting particularly straight after World War II. In response to the dire need for homes after the war including returned servicemen who found their families were homeless, mass squatting took place in former military accommodation as well as empty civilian buildings across the country.
A person or business in ownership of a property which is occupied currently have to make a civil claim for repossession. Currently, the quickest way for property owners to re-establish possession is to obtain an Interim Possession Order (IPO). This order is pending a judge’s decision to grant a full possession order and if granted requires squatters to leave within 24 hours and then not return within 12 months. In order to get one of these orders a landlord needs to make a claim within 28 days of finding out that they have squatters. An IPO can cost around £3,000, and so, in terms of cost, an IPO will more likely not be used, and a court order requires 28 days notice of eviction to be served.
However, IPOs do not apply where a residential occupier as been displaced by people who are thereby trespassing (where someone’s home where they are currently residing is occupied or where someone is about to move in to live there). Anti-squatting propaganda has robustly reported on numerous incidences where squatters have been claiming squatters rights in homes temporarily vacated by persons on holiday, which is trespass pure and simple. The law states it is a criminal offence under section 7 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 to occupy a property where there is a ‘displaced residential occupier’ or a ‘Protected Intended Occupier’ (someone about to move in to live there). In neither case is a possession order required. The displaced/protected occupier can use force to enter the property and reasonable force to remove the trespassers. The police can arrest anyone remaining in the property after the trespasser has been informed that there is a displaced/protected occupier.
Use it or Lose it
This is why for properties which have been empty for a long time, if through research it is found that the owners are distant, squatters can often be in possession of a property for many months, if not years in some cases. Local authorities have been given new powers since 2006 to use Empty Dwelling Management Orders to bring unoccupied property back into use as housing, though in a new revision to this policy under the new Government, local authorities will only be able to use the powers on empty homes that affect neighbours. So far, EDMOs have been issued at a slow trickle. The Empty Homes Agency said that in 2009 there were 1 million empty homes in the UK.
What about Land?
Current legislation which stands where a trespasser is on land privately owned stipulates that liability for unintentional intrusions arises "only under circumstances evincing negligence or where the intrusion involved a highly dangerous activity*". Where the trespasser is on public land (owned by a local authority or other state body), the body has to bring possession proceedings, but can also seek an injunction banning the trespassers from the land under threat of arrest and committal for contempt of court. The body can seek a pre-emptive injunction, banning the trespassers from other areas of land owned by the body to which it appears the trespassers are likely to move.
[* - The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 as amended by the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003 Part VII (Public Order and Trespass) strengthens the powers of police to move unauthorised travellers' sites, whilst the provisions of the
Public Order Act 1986 as amended by the Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003 Part VII (Public Order and Trespass) gave police power to intervene if a public assembly of just 2 or more people appeared likely to cause 'serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community' (as opposed to 20 before).
Proposed legal aid changes threaten travellers
The government's new proposals will not include the government's previous announcement of plans to make any unauthorised access to land a criminal offence, such as camping on private land, under a new law of 'Intentional Trespass' (after the police apparantly advised they would be against it on the grounds of it's difficulty in enforceability based on the experience of the Garda in Ireland). Read more about their original proposal for this new law here
However, the proposal to remove legal aid from trespassers may negatively impact on particularly gypsy and traveller communities who for some decades have increasingly relied on occupying unauthorised sites or parking up on public land in situations where authorised sites are usually not available. Some 25% of the Gypsy and traveller population who live in caravans do not live on authorised sites. This is a population which in large part has no option but to trespass.
In many cases, defences under article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights have been raised to possession claims. The Community Law Partnership, who run a specialist Gypsy and traveller unit, estimate that some 75% of the cases that they currently advise on would have legal aid removed under this proposal. In this context, it is notable that the Ministry of Justice equality impact assessment makes no mention of Gypsies or Irish Travellers at all. This seems to be in keeping with the Conservatives’ removal of regional development plans, which imposed requirements on Local Authorities to identify and provide new sites. All-in-all, whilst stopping short of implementing a new law of 'Intentional Trespass', these proposed changes would seem to go some way towards having the same effect.
Squatters of houses don’t get legal aid now, or only very rarely. Legal aid is only available where there is an arguable defence and in possession proceedings against squatters there is no such defence, apart from the occasions where the property owner fails to fulfil the technicalities. There are no costs savings to be made by removing legal aid from squatters and the removal of legal aid will frankly make little or no difference in virtually all proceedings against squatters.
There has been a sophisticated campaign against squatting in the national media over the last 12 months being likely coordinated by a so-far unidentified PR Agency. A flurry of anti-squatting propaganda has come recently at a time when there has been a spate of cases of squatting of families’ residential homes by squatters from Eastern Europe who have acted in an unreasonable way to utilise this legislative dispensation which allows for squatting within the law.
The Daily Mail have been most vocal (unsurprisingly) in this regard. Their article published on 18th March entitled “Squatting is to be a crime: Police will be able to turf out intruders” contained a number of glaring misrepresentations, notably about the work of the Advisory Service for Squatters. Read their letter in response here.
Please also sign this petition:
Housing Activists serve Eviction-Notice on Justice Secretary Ken Clarke:
Activists from Squatters Housing Action Group served a mock six-month eviction notice on the Secreatary of State's house (around the corner from Parliament) and unfurled banners with slogans such as "Housing is a Human right" whilst perched on the roof of his porch. See this video of the action against the proposed criminalisation of squatting outside the front of Justice Secretary of State Ken Clarke's London home last week:
Squatting campaigners hail judge's ruling on empty homes
Sept 7th, 2011
A judge has ordered that Camden Council must comply with a Freedom of Information request, and make public a list of empty homes in the borough. Housing and squatting campaigners celebrated the landmark judgement, that will have repercussions for the management of council-owned empty property and which puts pressure on the governments controversial plans to criminalise squatting.
The Squash campaign: www.squashcampaign.org
Advisory Service for Squatters: www.squatter.org.uk
Squatters Housing Action Group: www.squattershousingactiongroup.wordpress.com
See also Kate Evan's cartoon on the subject here.