Squatters Rights No More

November 12, 2012

From the 1st September 2012 it is a criminal offence to knowingly squat in a residential property. Under this new law, designed to protect homeowners, offenders can now face a hefty fine or even a prison sentence. However, there are critics of this change who claim that it will simply lead to more people sleeping rough on the streets.

Making squatting a criminal offence will provide assistance for owners of empty properties, including landlords and local councils. It may even have an impact on the cost of landlords insurance. Property owners will be able to reclaim their property far swifter if it is occupied by squatters, reducing the potential risk of damage to the building and allowing landlords to let it to tenants sooner.

Prior to this new law, complaints about squatters were dealt with as a civil matter. Property owners were forced to go through lengthy, costly and stressful court proceedings to have them evicted. The length of time this took often led to increased repair and cleaning costs once the squatters were removed.

A Quicker Route to Justice

The new process should be far smoother and swifter, with the ability to report potential squatters to the police. Once they have ascertained that the occupants knowingly trespassed on the property and either are living or intend to live there, they can be arrested and dealt with through the criminal courts. Punishment for those found guilty is up to six months in prison, a £5,000 fine, or both.

There are exceptions to this new law. It won't affect those in rent arrears or tenants who stay in a property after their tenancy agreement has ended. Landlords of these properties will still have to go through the usual process of eviction. It also only applies to residential properties, not commercial buildings.

Opponents of the Changes

As expected, there are many opponents of the new law, who claim that it is simply targeting the most vulnerable people in society. They cite the lack of affordable housing in this country as one of the key reasons for homelessness, which in turn often leads to squatting. They argue that the majority of squatters are simply occupying buildings that would otherwise have remained empty, with very few actually taking over people's homes. According to the Empty Homes charity, there are currently over 350,000 houses that have been empty for at least six months, so if local authorities worked with owners to revitalise these it would reduce the need for squatting.

We will have to wait and see if the change in the law does increase the number of homeless people or if instead it encourages more homes to become legitimately occupied again. There is always help for people in desperate need of accommodation and while for many squatting was a final resort, it is now one that could see them spending time in prison.

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