News & events
28/05/2012 - Trespassers beware!
The government has hit back with the introduction of new criminal measures in a wake of the media reporting a number of high profile squatting cases in recent years, including the squatting of the Grade 1 listed home of Film Director, Guy Ritchie and the story of Harley Street neurologist, Dr Cockerell and his expectant wife returning to find their newly purchased West Hampstead home occupied by a gang of squatters.
Are the days of "Squatters Rights” drawing to an end with the introduction of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 which received Royal Assent on 1 May 2012? Buried somewhere deep in this legislation (not yet in force) is section 144 which makes it a criminal offence for a person to be in a residential building as a trespasser having entered as a trespasser.
What about the "duped tenant”, that is the tenant who is tricked into believing he has been granted a tenancy by the lawful owner of the property but that person turns out not to be the owner but someone running a scam? Take for example a recent trespassers case where the Executors of an Estate were faced with a family of trespassers who produced at court a 12 months fixed term tenancy agreement granted by someone they believed to be the landlord. The unfortunate trespassers had decorated and refurbished the property at their own expense only to face eviction a short while later in trespassers proceedings.
What the new legislation says about a scenario like the one above, is that for an offence to be committed, the trespasser "must know or ought to know he or she is a trespasser” and that person must be living or intending to live in the building for any period. Note there is no offence committed if the premises concerned are commercial property or land.
What will happen to the trespasser when prosecuted? If convicted of an offence under section 144, the penalty could be a spell in custody for a term of no more than 51 weeks or a fine between £200 and £5,000 or both.
Should landlords and other residential owners be breathing a sigh of relief in response to the arrival of this deterrent aimed at stamping out squatting? Well we will have to wait and see how effective the new legislation is but criminal sanctions for trespassing are nothing new at all, it is already a criminal offence under section 76 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 to remain on either residential or non - residential premises for more than 24 hours after service of an Interim Possession Order (IPO), a fast track eviction procedure to remove squatters. On conviction for breach of an IPO, a trespasser could face a term of imprisonment for up to 6 months or a fine or both.
Residential occupiers are also already afforded some protection under Section 7 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 which makes it a criminal offence to unlawfully occupy residential property where there is a "displaced occupier” (e.g. owner/occupier of a house returning from holiday to find his home squatted), or "protected intended occupier” (e.g. a Housing Association tenant intending to take up a tenancy of the squatted property). The displaced or protected intended occupier need not obtain a possession order, the police can be contacted to attend and arrest the trespassers to recover possession in the event that the trespasser fails to leave upon request.
Will the squatters be deterred by the new criminal sanctions? Will property owners be sufficiently protected? Or will there be little change in reality to the status quo? We shall have to wait and see.
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