Should Squatting Be Criminalised?

The coalition government has recently announced that there will be a brief consultation period over the prospect of criminalising squatting in England. This has brought a very controversial subject to the table for deliberation, and we are already tending to notice how strong opinions are from each side of this argument.

We need to be very clear here, whether a civil or criminal matter, squatting is the unlawful occupation of property or land that does not belong to the “squatter”. Whichever way you choose to look at this issue, squatters will always be breaking the law if they choose to reside in accommodation or on land that is not theirs. However, those people stringently opposed to the criminalisation of squatting are quick to point out that there are a number of issues that are much broader here and that need to be considered.

By far the strongest argument against the criminalisation of squatting is the fact that any such legal move would lead to a huge increase in the number of people who are made homeless in England. Opponents of criminalisation highlight the fact that homelessness is already an issue in this country that we do not have firm control over – an issue that has definitely increased in severity since the banking crisis/recession and shows no signs of abating when more and more contributory factors are being thrown at the problem.

These catalysts are problems such as a fundamental lack of social housing: all local authorities in England do not have enough housing stock to go around; the “right to buy” schemes are still in existence and are dwindling housing stock further; and many local authorities simply choose to sell off some of their housing stock in an effort to save funds and resources. Also, housing benefit entitlement has been cut at a time when private and social rents are on the rise. This problem, in itself, unfortunately has led to more and more people being made homeless.

We also need to consider that there are actually tens of thousands of properties that are currently unoccupied across the whole country, for a variety of reasons. Some of which may have been empty for many years at a time. Therefore, it shouldn’t take a genius to work out that if you suddenly evict every single squatter in residence in such properties at the same time, you will be left with potentially tens of thousands of additional homeless people to deal with – which will represent a massive financial drain on local authorities and the criminal justice system.

Whilst the arguments against criminalising squatting are immensely strong, we must show some regard for the unfortunate people who find themselves on the other side of this argument. There are many occasions where squatters may choose to take up residence in a property unlawfully due to absolutely no fault of the displaced residential occupier”. Ostensibly, it may be contested that squatting is an infringement upon several of the displaced residential occupiers’ human rights – which are provided for under The European Convention on Human Rights and The Human Rights Act 1998. Specifically, Article 8 of the European Convention appears to be extremely pertinent here: with the right to respect for one’s home definitely being violated through the squatters.

The costs and length of time involved in obtaining a court order to legally evict squatters from a property is another consideration that must be taken into account with the current system. Basically, as squatting is a matter for the civil courts (unless criminal damage has occurred to the property in question), displaced residential occupiers really will be on their own in any action they are forced to pursue. The police will not become involved in such matters, and it has even been noted that where criminal damage has become applicable in regards to a property that has squatters, the police can still fail to take applicable action or are very slow in investigating such matters. This is all tremendously stressful for the lawful owner of the property, and it really does not seem fair that they are forced to fork out copious amounts of money in order to remedy a situation that is not their fault.

There are some that may say that taking up residence in a property that is not your own, and which you have absolutely no permission to be in, is tantamount to land theft. The squatter is literally stealing one of the biggest assets the property owner possesses in their life. How can it be that if you steal a dippy-looking garden gnome from their front garden you will be charged with theft, yet if you steal an entire property from another person, you will be treated with kid gloves and judicial respect?

At the start to this article I did point out that this was a very controversial topic. If you have remained with me all the way through, I have no doubt that you are not any closer to forming a firm opinion on this matter. We can all understand both sides to this argument, and it really will be interesting to see how far the coalition government will go down this route. Provided, of course, they actually do listen to both sides of this argument and utilise the consultation period for the purpose for which it is meant.