By Mark Steggles, Senior Associate. Contact Thomson Snell and Passmore 01892 510000.
The new law making squatting in residential buildings a criminal offence is now a year old and has generated mixed results. The law does not extend to commercial properties but the lobbying for it to do so is growing.
A key objective of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 was to speed up recovery of possession, without the need for owners to have to issue civil proceedings to evict the squatters with all the stress and expense that can follow. The sanctions for squatting in a residential building are a maximum prison sentence of up to six months and a maximum fine of £5000 or both.
The results have been mixed. Families who return from holidays to find squatters in occupation have benefitted from the new law, although those types of cases were always rare. To commit a criminal offence, the person must have entered the property as a trespasser and know, or ought to have known, that they were a trespasser. The new law has helped but unless the squatters are caught in the act of breaking and entering the police can still be reluctant to get involved in all but the most clear cut situations.
However, the threat of criminal prosecution is a deterrent and the increasing numbers of empty commercial properties make an attractive alternative for squatters. Two recent high profile cases concerning properties in Lambeth have highlighted the growing problem. In those cases, the property owners were left with high eviction costs to remove the squatters and large repair bills to put right the damage caused by them.
The Justice Secretary has indicated that he is “sympathetic to the problem” but there are no signs that an extension of the law is imminent leaving commercial property owners no choice but to use the civil courts to evict squatters. Therefore, if commercial premises are empty, appropriate steps should be taken to ensure that sufficient security is in place and that there are routine patrols to minimise the risk of the property being targeted.