Squatters have long been a hot topic with the media. We have all seen the particularly sorry tales of property owners going on holiday or leaving their home whilst renovation works are being done, and coming home to find the squatters have moved in preventing them from returning to their home, and, when they finally do get back in, facing a significant amount of damage and loss.
It is not just media hype, however. The Government is so concerned about the harm that squatters can cause that it published a consultation paper on the subject on 13 July 2011.
The consultation paper
The paper sought information about the scale and nature of squatting in England and Wales to help the Government assess whether the law in this area needs to be strengthened. It also sought views on the workability of various legislative and non-legislative options including (1) creating a new offence of squatting in buildings and (2) leaving the criminal law unchanged but working with enforcement authorities to improve enforcement of existing offences committed by squatters, for example criminal damage.
Responses to the consultation
The consultation period closed on 5 October 2011. Responses were received and comments made by homelessness charities, property owners, enforcement officers and academics.
It was clear from the responses that both residential and commercial property owners are dissatisfied with the current laws which apply to squatters. Reliance on the civil procedure, the length of time to remove the squatters, the cost of legal proceedings and also the cost of repairing damage caused to the property by the squatters, none of which costs are generally recoverable, were all cited as points of frustration. Many commercial property owners also cited the serious effect squatters can have on their business.
The new offence
Having taken on board the responses to the consultation, the Government has decided as a first step to introduce a new offence of squatting in residential buildings. The offence is committed where a person was in a building as a trespasser having entered as such, or ought to have known he or she was a trespasser, and was living or intending to live in the building.
The Government has stopped short of criminalising squatting in non-residential buildings. Squatters who occupy genuinely abandoned or dilapidated non-residential buildings will not be committing the new offence, and their actions will continue to be dealt with under the existing civil procedure. This will no doubt be a continuing frustration for commercial property owners.