If you are a regular follower of this Journal, you might recall that we covered the change to squatting laws that were due to come into force a couple of years ago. At that time, we discussed the fact that it was to become a criminal offence for a person to trespass and live without permission in a residential property and we speculated as to how the new squatting law would be policed once the Law came into effect on 1 September 2012.
Well now, nearly 18 months on, it is interesting to evaluate exactly how s.144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 has been received and enforced.
To cut straight to the chase here, the new law has generally proven to be difficult to prosecute over and this has led to all charities and organisations that have associations with squatters and the homeless to raise their hands up in glee and rejoice. Before this law came into force, it was organisations such as these that were warning us that this new law could end up exacerbating the problem with homelessness on the streets. However, as there would now appear to be very little respect and fear of s.144, this legislation does not seem to have put thousands more people on the streets as was the initial concern.
For the cases that have gone to court and been prosecuted, unless the defendant has pleaded guilty to the offence of squatting (which appears to be a very rare occurrence indeed), convictions have not transpired as the courts find it difficult to prove that the defendant was actually ‘living’ in the residential property. This appears to be the loophole that is seeing nearly all defendants escape conviction and punishment.
To date, there appear to be only a couple of known cases where squatters have been convicted under s.144 and sentenced to a term of imprisonment, but as we have already said, this was because they pleaded guilty at their trial.
OK, so while the community associated with homelessness are celebrating what looks to be their defeat of this legislation, where does this leave the property owners who are forced to deal with unwanted and unlawful squatters? Let us not forget that there are two sides to this part of the story: on the one hand, you have the property owners who do not live in the accommodation and allow these homes to fall to ruin without a care in the world, and then you have property owners who may actually live in the home themselves and it is taken over by squatters when the owners are away for a period of time.
There are probably very few of us out there who would truly feel sorry for the property owner who lets a home fall to ruin when it could house homeless people; however, we know how devastated we would feel if we had to take care of a sick relative for a few months and then return home to find unlawful squatters in our house.
The new legislation was, of course, intended to protect all residential property owners, but if we do still wish to make squatting in a residential property a criminal offence, it is clear that the current ‘proof of living’ loophole will need to be closed. At the end of the day, this is all well and good, but we need to remember the fact that this was extremely unpopular legislation in the first place and that the homeless community may well have yet more tricks up their sleeves to overcome whatever comes next. We will continue to follow this area of law and will provide you with any updates as and when they transpire.