Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 Creates Hundreds of Criminals Overnight

Just over a year ago we wrote about the proposal by the Ministry of Justice that the British Government criminalise squatting as part of a range of options designed to protect both home and business property owners from the misery, stress, cost and incredible hassle of squatters.

Now, as of 1st September 2012, residential squatting is no longer an offence punishable only through the civil courts and the inefficient, costly and time consuming exercise of the common law, but by the Crown through the criminal justice system.

The new rule has been introduced via the statutory instrument formally enacting section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.

Essentially, if a person is living in a residential property without permission at the date of 1st September 2012, he or she will be committing a criminal offence, creating potentially hundreds of criminals overnight.

Crucially, this means that instead of taking the matter to the courts and potentially waiting weeks, or even months, to obtain eviction, victims of squatting can phone the police and have squatters arrested. The minimum penalty has been reported at 6 months in jail, a £5000 fine, or potentially even both.

The protection does not extend to commercial property, however, as companies are typically seen as having the funds and time to spend dealing with squatters through the conventional common law process – having to prove in civil court that the squatters have trespassed.

Nonetheless, the Department of Justice have reportedly confirmed that, subject to review of the new rule on residential squatters, the offence could also be extended to commercial property. In the meantime, it will look at ways to improve the existing eviction procedures and criminal offences relating to commercial property.

Housing Minister at the time, Grant Shapps, is reported to have commented:

“For too long, hardworking people have faced long legal battles to get their homes back from squatters, and repair bills reaching into the thousands when they finally leave.

“No longer will there be so-called ‘squatters rights’. Instead, from next week, we’re tipping the scales of justice back in favour of the homeowner and making the law crystal clear: entering a property with the intention of squatting will be a criminal offence.”

British law has therefore finally caught up with Scottish Law, where it has been illegal to squat since 1865, and it is hoped that squatting figures will now decline. The criticism levelled at these changes, however, has been that no effort has been made to address the underlying causes of squatting. Critics have prophesied that the only significant result of this criminalisation will be a spike in homelessness.

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