A new law has come into force making it a criminal offence to squat in a residential building in England and Wales.
While squatting in someone’s home was already a criminal offence and there are civil remedies available to property owners (which will continue to be the only remedy available to owners of commercial property) the law introduced on 1 September will give home owners even greater protection. It will be of particular benefit to landlords and non-resident owners who find out that the property they own is being occupied by non-rent paying strangers.
Collas Crill UK property expert Michael Morris said: “For Channel Island investors and trustees, this new law offers peace of mind that there is a further deterrent to squatters targeting their unoccupied properties.
“But for any Channel Island students who might have been considering reducing their living costs by taking up residence in an empty house, there are harsh consequences in store – the penalty for a convicted squatter is a fine not exceeding £5,000 and/or 6 months imprisonment.”
The Ministry of Justice recently published figures showing an increase in evictions over the year to February 2012 to 26,690 in London alone. One case involved Guy Ritchie’s £6 million Georgian mansion, which was occupied by squatters who turned the property into a free ‘school’ with events open to the general public.
Michael Morris said: “A squatter will only be committing an offence if they are trespassing on residential property and know, or ought to have known, that they are trespassing, and either lives in the building or is intending to live in it.”
The new law has its opponents, particularly squatters who are upset that their behaviour is now criminalised. It has also caused concern for charities who are worried that there will be a rise in homelessness as a consequence.
Duncan Shrubsole, director of policy for Crisis, the charity for single homeless people, said: “The majority of people squatting are in empty buildings. Forty percent of homeless people have squatted at some time. We will see street homelessness rise if there’s a blitz against squats. It will have a dramatic impact.”
But the UK Housing Minister, Grant Shapps, said: “No longer will there be so-called ‘squatters rights’. Instead, from next week, we’re tipping the scales of justice back in favour of the homeowner and making the law crystal clear: entering a property with the intention of squatting will be a criminal offence.”
Michael Morris added: “The new law, regardless of the moral question of housing going unoccupied, gives protection to homeowners who may have been prevented from occupying their homes by squatters. It will also protect landlords and non-resident owners who find that the property they own is now being occupied by non-rent paying strangers.”