The new offence of squatting in a residential building came into force on 1st September 2012 under section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.
Under the previous legal framework, squatting in itself was not a criminal offence. The property owner typically had to apply for a possession order or an interim possession order in order to evict the occupiers, potentially a lengthy and expensive remedy.
However, since the beginning of September, a person commits an offence if they are a knowing trespasser living or intending to live in a residential property. The onus on removing squatters has therefore moved from the property owner taking civil action via the courts to the police.
The change in the law reflects the government’s wish to end the “untold misery in eviction, repair and clean-up costs”, described by Justice Minister Crispin Blunt as he marked the introduction of the new offence. The increased protection has been granted to all owners of vacant residential properties, however owners of non-residential buildings will still need to use the civil procedure to obtain a possession order to evict squatters.
No offence will be committed by a person who remains in occupation after the end of a lease or licence, even if that person leaves the property and then re-enters it. Therefore, landlords will not be able to use the new offence to evict tenants who stay on after the end of their lease, and will need to apply for a possession order instead.