As of the 1st September 2012, squatting has become a criminal offence in England and Wales for the first time. This means that anyone seen to be squatting can now be forcibly removed by police, arrested, charged and, potentially, remanded in custody before appearing before the Court, where they can be sentenced to a fine, community penalty or custody.
Many are welcoming this change to the law. Previously, the victims, often Landlords of vacant premises, would need to seek out a civil order to regain possession of their property, which was an arduous, time consuming and often expensive procedure. Now, they simply need to contact their local police force.
Critics, however, see the scheme as one which, essentially, criminalises homelessness, and does nothing to address the underlying issues faced by the majority, if not all squatters. They do not after all squat out of greed, but out of necessity. Catherine Brogan, from the campaign group Squatters’ Action for Secure Housing, said of the change in law:
“What we need is to tackle the housing crisis and not criminalise some of the most vulnerable people in our society.”
What will the reality of this law hold? If the Courts take a tough approach to this new offence, offenders may receive custodial sentences. With a maximum of six months to play with, ignoring credit which should rightly be afforded to those pleading guilty at the earliest opportunity, squatters will, worst case scenario, serve a couple of months in custody prior to being released, still homeless, and without further assistance. Probation Offices will struggle to work with people of no fixed abode should community penalties be considered, and, if offenders could afford a £5000 fine, or any fine for that matter, they would not be squatting in the first place.
Yes, the scales of justice have now been tipped away from so-called ‘squatter’s rights’ and back in the favour of the home owner, but at what cost to those who are already struggling?