Since 1 September 2012 it has been a criminal offence to squat in a residential property. The new offence is punishable by a maximum prison sentence of 6 months and/or a fine of up to £5,000.
Following the introduction of the new law, a flurry of arrests was reported to squatters’ support groups such as Squatters Legal Network and Squatter’s Action for Secure Homes (SQUASH).
After just 27 days, a 21-year old male was the first person to be prosecuted under the new law. He had been squatting in a flat in Pimlico, London along with two other people. Quite unusually, he immediately pleaded guilty to the offence and was jailed for 12 weeks. It is common for squatters to claim that they have some form of tenancy agreement in place with a landlord that they can no longer contact or that they have been the unfortunate victim of a fraud committed by someone posing as the landlord.
The new offence has attracted criticism for a number of reasons. There are concerns about the impact on vulnerable people and an increase in rough sleeping, as well as the impact on the public purse if everyone currently living in squats around England and Wales was sentenced to a period in prison or started claiming housing benefit.
For owners of commercial property, there is another worrying aspect. The new offence only applies to residential premises. Now that the police and the courts have sent a very clear message to those squatting in residential property, squatters are likely to start looking elsewhere for places to occupy. It is not too difficult to see that empty, commercial premises, perhaps those earmarked for redevelopment, will become even more appealing to squatters.
Now more than ever, commercial property owners should take stock of their property portfolio to identify any buildings that may be susceptible to becoming a squat and take action to make them more secure. If a commercial building is taken over by squatters, the owner’s only remedy will lie in seeking possession through the courts which is usually a very expensive and time consuming process – one that is best avoided!