The Policing and Enforcement of the New Residential Squatting Law

On the 1st September 2012 Section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 comes into effect.

There is nothing in this title to give away that the new law which is quite literally going to hit the streets on this date represents not only a significant statement of political intent but also fundamentally weakens one of the most iconic ‘rights’ in the legal dictionary.

Section 144 of the Act lays down a new offence of squatting in a residential building. It has a number of elements:

A person who is in the residential building as a trespasser must have entered as such.

They must have known or ought to have known that they were trespassing, so, for instance, protecting from conviction someone who enters residential property as a result of bogus letting agents misrepresentations.

And the person is living in the building or intends to live there for any period of time, protecting those who gain access, say, to pick up mail.

The offence does not apply to a person who enters as a legitimate tenant and subsequently defaults with rent payments. In these circumstances, the landlord will be expected to pursue established eviction proceedings.. Upon conviction, following summary trial or plea, the sentence can be up to 6 months imprisonment and\or a £5,000 fine.

The provision was introduced to protect owners and lawful occupiers of any type of residential building and makes it more difficult for trespassers to assert they have rights in respect of residential buildings because their occupation of that building will be a criminal act. The real significance of this is that Section 6 of the Criminal Law Act 1977, which makes it an offence for a person without lawful authority to use, or threaten violence to secure entry to premises against the will of those inside, which may include someone who is a trespasser, will be curtailed. Put another way, in relation to residential properties, squatters’ rights are dead.

The Police will not now be deterred from a squatters’ rights notice on the door of a residential building. The Police will have a lawful authority under Section 17 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984  to enter that property and make an arrest.

On the face of it, there can be little complaint that the blight, as some see it, of residential property, which has been left unoccupied, being taken over by trespassers is being brought under control. I see that and I respect it.

But the consequences of this new legislation will be that, sometimes and I stress, sometimes, homeless, vulnerable people will be forced back onto the streets. This is a concern which is accepted and articulated by the Ministry of Justice in their notes which accompany the Act and cannot be dismissed as liberal heart bleeding.

We should expect the Police to enforce their new powers with tact and sensitivity.

This sort of legislation does highlight the debate about the way the Police deal with disadvantaged members of Society. It is right to emphasise, that apart from the rare political occupation, many of those who occupy deserted residential properties are themselves homeless, unemployed and generally poor.

There are a number of pieces of respected research upon Police behaviour which continues to highlight the prejudicial way  by which the Police deal with the socially deprived. Current debate, quite properly has concentrated upon the attitudes of the Police to racial or religious  groups, and to that of sexuality and the spotlight has been turned away from the way the Police treat the socially and economically deprived. This is somewhat concerning as the majority of society with whom the Police interact are from exactly those latter categories.

Bethan Loftus makes the point very clearly in her book ‘Police Culture in a Changing World’ [OUP] when she observes [at page 165], that “the economically excluded were the prime targets of police concern and practice. Officers saw themselves as locked in battle with what they termed ‘scrotes’ who would otherwise infest their respective areas.”

Section 144 is just the sort of legislation which might be utilized by a disparate group of interests, from public opinion driven politicians to a police force which continues to have the much less analysed prejudices of social status, or even class, very much in its DNA.

In many respects, and particularly on the surface, this section represents a sound and much needed development. There is no doubt, that it will reassure the property owner, who is entitled to such reassurance, but we should think a little further than loud cheers of welcome, and think to its enforcement.

With Section 144 comes responsibility and it raises some fundamental questions about how the Police relate to the vulnerable.