First squatter convicted under the new offence of squatting
Squatting in a residential building became a criminal offence on 1 September 2012 when section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (the Act) came into effect.
On 2 September 2012, just a day after the new offence was introduced, three people who had been squatting in a residential property in London were arrested and one of them was given the first custodial sentence made under section 144(5).
Under the old legal framework, squatting in itself was not a criminal offence and cases were heard in the civil courts where the landowner could apply for a possession order or an interim possession order against squatters (Part 55, Civil Procedure Rules).
Whilst owners of non-residential buildings still need to use the civil possession procedure to evict squatters, residential property owners have been offered extra protection following the introduction of the criminal offence of squatting in a residential building pursuant to section 144 of the Act.
Residential property for the purposes of the Act, includes "any structure or part of a structure (including a temporary or moveable structure)" which "is designed or adapted, before the time of entry, for use as a place to live" (s144(3)).
Under section 144(1), the offence will be committed if:
- the person is in a residential building as a trespasser having entered it as a trespasser
- the person knows or ought to know that he or she is a trespasser
- the person is living in the building or intends to live there for any period.
Section 144(7) further specifies that it is irrelevant whether the person entered the building as a trespasser before or after the commencement of this section.
Pursuant to an amendment introduced to section 17 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, police constables now have power to enter and search any premises for the purpose of arresting a person under section 144. The offence is punishable by up to 51 weeks in prison or fines of up to £5,000 (or both) (s144(5)).
Following the introduction of the new offence, Alex Haigh, Anthony Ismond and Michelle Blake became the first three people to be charged with squatting under section 144(1) and (5) of the Act.
After pleading guilty to the offence, Mr Haigh was sentenced in the West London Magistrates Court on 27 September 2012 and was given custodial sentence amounting to 84 days in prison. Mr Ismond was fined £100 and recalled to prison on breach of licence, and Ms Blake is still to be sentenced.
This case is an early indication of the effectiveness of the new legislation. Whilst limited to residential properties, it is an example of how the new offence of squatting provides for quicker and easier eviction of squatters which will benefit residential home owners by reducing costs and increasing security.