Monday 3 September 2012

New squatting law in force 1st September

The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 section 144 creates a new criminal offence relating to "squatting."  The section came into force on 1st September 2012.  For details of the legislation see the earlier post of 9th May - LASPO - Part 3 Chapter 9 - Offences and Criminal Law

Ministry of Justice announcement.

The new offence is a "bolt on" to the existing law in this tricky area.  Thus, the existing provisions in the Criminal Law Act 1977 continue in force.  It may well have been preferable for the law to have been completely overhauled.  The Nearly Legal blog takes a look at some of the problems.

The Ministry of Justice has issued Circular 2012/04 "Offence of Squatting in a residential building."   The purpose of the circular is stated to be:

"The purpose of this circular is to explain the elements of the offence, the relationship between this offence and other offences related to trespass and to encourage joined-up working between the police, local authorities and homelessness service providers when enforcing the offence.

This circular is for guidance only and should not be regarded as providing legal advice ....."

Paragraphs 24 to 27 are particularly noteworthy:

Support for Homeless and Vulnerable People

There might be instances where people are squatting because they believe the only alternative would be rough sleeping. Particularly in areas where squatting is prevalent, police forces may wish to liaise with local housing authorities and relevant partner organisations to develop protocols for dealing with persons arrested who claim they are homeless.

There might be instances where the police are asked to clear a residential building that is known to house rough sleepers. In these circumstances, the police might wish to liaise with local authorities and homelessness service providers prior to enforcement action to ensure they are ready to assist if required and give appropriate advice on housing options. This process is likely to work most effectively if protocols on joint working have been developed in advance.

In other circumstances, the fact that somebody is squatting to avoid rough sleeping might only become known once enforcement action has been taken. In these circumstances, liaison with local authorities and homelessness providers would ensure the appropriate advice and assistance is offered to the accused after the point of arrest. In both scenarios, if local authorities are made aware of squatters as soon as they become known, this is likely to minimise the risk of the accused returning to the address in which he or she had been squatting or, indeed, to squat in another building on release from custody.

Local authorities have specific legal duties towards homeless people. If any person who is homeless or threatened with homelessness approaches the local authority for help, it has a duty to provide them with advice and assistance and, for some people who fall within certain priority categories there may also be a duty on the local authority to provide them with accommodation. Early notification is crucial to providing the most appropriate advice, assistance and if necessary accommodation. If joint working protocols have been developed, as suggested in paragraph 24 above, these could include up to date contact details (including out of hours contact numbers) for local authorities and relevant partner organisations to facilitate early notification.

Up to now, the Police have been very reluctant to get involved in this area and have claimed (incorrectly) that squatting is purely a civil matter.  These "protocols" between the Police and Local Authorities may well prove to be important when it comes to whether or not the Police take action upon complaints about squatters.

Crown Prosecution Service Guidance is now available - here.  It does not necessarily follow that arrest will be followed by charge.  For reasons why, see the public interest factors in the CPS guidance.

A point made by the CPS is that a charge under s 7 (Criminal Law Act 1977) may be appropriate where a charge contrary to s 144 (LASPO)  is not possible. The definition of 'residential premises' contained within s 7 is wider than the definition of 'residential building' contained within s 144. For example, it includes any building, any part of a building under separate occupation, or any land ancillary to a building, such as a garden. The new offence is limited to the building itself and does not cover land ancillary to a residential building.

Time will tell whether the new offence is mere window dressing so that Ministers can say that they have done something about the problem of squatters.  Furthermore, the new offence is far from being without controversy.  On this see the post at Squatter's Action for Secure Homes (SQUAT).

The Law Society Gazette 31st August 2012 takes an interesting look at this change - Lawyers berate new law  - claiming that - Lawyers have branded as ‘headline-grabbing’ and unnecessary the introduction of a new criminal offence of squatting, warning that it could harm vulnerable people. But the government is unrepentant, declaring that the move signals the end of ‘squatters’ rights’.


  1. The new law is deceptively simple – which means all manner of things could go wrong with it, leading to hours, days and months of court wrangling. What of human rights claims? What of occupiers who know or believe they have a right to stay (at least a licence or a fraudulent tenancy agreement taken in good faith) that police don't comprehend (not least because they are not versed in land law); what if police go in anyway and find themselves up for wrongful arrest? How does adverse possession now mesh with criminality of squatting? (LAPSO doesn't mention this). Will the law promote vigilantism?
    I suspect the Government is hoping that the mere threat of police action will send squatters scuttling, hence job done. But there are likely to be some squatters ready to take the battle to the courtrooms. I look at some scenarios here: