As of 1st September, squatting in residential properties has become a criminal offence.
Squatters are people who live in a building without the owner’s permission, whether it is a commercial building or residential property.
There have been some instances where squatters have even moved in to houses while the owners are away on holiday, or even just at work, and have remained in place using “squatters rights”.
Last year squatters hit the headlines when, just days after neurologist Oliver Cockerell and his pregnant wife, Kaltun, had completed the purchase of their £1million North London home, a group of 14 squatters moved in. The Cockerell’s had to go to court to evict the squatters, who finally left just days before the birth of their baby boy.
Film director Guy Ritchie has also suffered, when squatters took over his £6 million mansion in Fitzrovia while it was being renovated.
The new law making squatting a criminal offence means homeowners who find squatters in their property can now evict them immediately rather than going through a time-consuming, expensive and stressful court process.
It has been illegal to threaten or use violence to enter a property where someone is present and opposes the entry since 1977. This law was introduced with the intent of stopping landlords using violence to evict tenants, and is commonly referred to as “squatters rights”.
Until recently squatting was treated as a civil matter; property owners had to go to a civil court to prove squatters had trespassed before they could be evicted. This process could be long and expensive, and has long been deemed unfair to homeowners who would have to find somewhere else to live while the squatters were resident in their property.
The new law essentially means that police will be able to remove squatters from a building, speeding up the eviction process.
If, for example, you return from holiday to find squatters living in your house you can call the police and, in theory, they’ll be removed immediately rather than requiring a court process to get them evicted. It will be virtually impossible for trespassers to assert they have rights in respect of residential buildings because their occupation of the building will be a criminal act.
Guidance for law enforcement agencies tells officers not be deterred if they see a “squatter’s rights” notice on the door as “the police have lawful authority under section 17 of PACE (the Police and Criminal Evidence Act) to enter the property to make an arrest”.
Home owners may also be able to press charges for criminal damage or theft if the squatters have damaged the property or stolen anything.
The offence of squatting in a residential building carries a maximum penalty of six months’ imprisonment, a fine of up to £5,000 or both.
Landlords of residential properties should note that if a tenancy comes to an end but the tenant does not move out, or they go into rental arrears, this will not be classed as squatting. In these cases, landlords should follow the proper process to evict their tenant(s).
The new law unfortunately does not extend to commercial properties, and insurers are warning that squatters may look to find new homes in unoccupied offices and warehouses.
Allianz property risk control manager Andy Miller said: “Now that the news is out there, it will shift squatting from residential to commercial properties”