“If you’re occupying a property (like land or a house) without permission you’re squatting. If you occupy and use it for several years you could apply to Land Registry to be registered as the legal owner.”
This is an extract not, as you might be forgiven for thinking, from some anarchist handbook, but from the government’s own information website Direct.gov.uk.
They haven’t got round yet to adding the rather important piece of information that, from Saturday 1st September, squatting in a residential (as opposed to a commercial) property became a criminal offence, punishable by fine or imprisonment. The law was passed, without much publicity, towards the end of July. As the London 2102 Olympics were just about to start, the change in the law aroused little media attention at the time.
Despite the fact that legal bodies such as the Bar Council and the Law Society opposed the change, largely on the grounds that there was already enough legislation in place to protect the victims of squatters, and both the Metropolitan Police and the Magistrates Association had expressed doubts about its introduction, it seems that the much publicised cases of squatters taking up occupation in suburban homes while the rightful owners are away on holiday, and subsequently trashing them on exit, have persuaded the government to act.
The change in the law is far from unpopular. It received wide cross-party support in Parliament. After all, having one’s house invaded while you’re away on holiday or in hospital must be very nasty, traumatising experience, and no-one should have the right to “steal” someone else’s home. But as with most changes, things aren’t always that clear cut, and it’s going to take some time to establish exactly how and in what circumstances the new law will be applied.
Inevitably, there will be test cases on how the wording of the legislation will be interpreted – good news for lawyers if no-one else. It is unlikely, in practice, that the police will charge into properties to arrest and evict the occupiers just on the say so of the owner. The police may need to be satisfied first that there is no tenancy agreement or permission to occupy, as the law does not apply to “trespassers” who are occupying after the expiry of a tenancy agreement or licence to occupy. In other words, property owners will not be able to use the new law to evict tenants who refuse to leave at the end of their lease – they will still have to rely on the civil law procedures.
Will arrested squatters be bailed when they will, in effect, have no fixed abode? Does that mean they will be remanded in custody – with all extra pressure that would put on our prison system. Police resources are going to be stretched enough as it is. And if their parents are incarcerated, what will happen to squatter’s children? Fining people who seemingly can’t pay rent is probably a non-starter.
And what will happen, going back to the government’s own website page, to a squatter applying to the land registry to become the legal owner because he’s used the house for several years? It is right hat he can suddenly be made a criminal at the same time as having rights under the Land Registration Act 2003? There are conflicts here that perhaps haven’t been thought through – and certainly our old friend “The Human Rights Act” will get a look in.
Some people I have spoken to expressed surprise that squatting wasn’t a crime in the first place. To find out the reason why, you really have to go back to 1066, as is the case with so many of our laws and customs. A large number of the long-standing aristocratic families in England are descended from the Norman invaders. After the Battle of Hasting, all the Anglo-Saxon nobles (many of whom were dead anyway) were instantly dispossessed. All their lands and estates were handed to the victors by William the Conqueror as a reward for their support. Rightful ownership went for nothing.
As a result the idea of physical possession plus the passage of time leading to legal ownership embedded itself in the system – for centuries the aristocracy added to their land holdings by merely fencing off whatever land they felt like grabbing , usually from the fairly powerless peasants. It was called “Enclosure”. Our medieval and Tudor nobility would have been horrified at the notion that what they were doing might in any way have been described a “criminal”.
(any opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer alone, and not necessarily those of the firm).