Chris Cully, the Managing Director of risk & security management company, Dilitas writes exclusively for Infologue.com about the new changes to the law regarding squatting. Chris writes: “For those of us who were lively, well informed young things in the 60”s and & 70’s, the word “Squatter” conjures up a wide variety of images; most of which are groovy people taking over empty properties, turning them into communal homes for those who need to drop in and drop out.
“In reality, squatters were individuals & groups who took advantage of both empty commercial and residential properties, committed offences of Burglary, Criminal Damage and Abstracting Electricity, to name but a few offences, when gaining entry to the properties, as well as once within. Their actions resulted in homeowners’ being ousted from their homes and businesses brought to a standstill.
“The only recourse to this action was for owners to attend a civil court to prove squatters had trespassed, before the squatters could be evicted. This was and still is a time- consuming and costly process, which does not serve the law-abiding homeowner in any way.
“There was, however, the redress that allowed people who had been made homeless by squatters to legally force entry to their property and demand the trespassers leave. If the squatterd refused, the offence could be reported to the police. This was a less than effective method of dealing with the problem, as frequently police were unsure of where they stood in the matter and preferred to stand by to ensure no breach of the peace occurred.
“There is of course the famous story of the police sergeant from Hounslow in the 70’s, who returned from holiday to find his substantial property occupied by squatters. A short visit to the rugby club, £100.00 behind the bar and the 1st XV, ably supported by the 2nd & 3rd teams, made short shrift of said squatters and normality was returned. Whilst this is no doubt a route that the law-abiding community would in general support, it was not, nor is still, the sensible answer to the problem.
“The situation has rumbled and stumbled on for years with squatters claiming Squatters Rights, which has little or no basis in law, but reflects the legal rights created in 1977 to stop landlords threatening or using violence against their tenants.
“SQUASH (Squatters Actions for Secure Homes) states that the number of people on council housing lists has nearly doubled since 1997 to five million, whilst there are an estimated 650,000 empty properties in the UK. This clearly is an inequitable situation that needs resolving and adds much to the argument of utilising empty and unused properties for habitation by the homeless.
“It should be pointed out that the action of many squatters has resulted in the saving and renovation of historical buildings that had been left to rot. Furthermore, there are many factual reports of squatters entering premises and setting up small, dynamic businesses. Such action is to be applauded and is diametrically opposed to the more commonly understood behaviour of squatters.
“However, finally, a little light has been brought to this dark cavern of chaos in the shape of clause 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, which will make squatting, as from this weekend, punishable by up to six months jail and fines up to £5,000 in England and Wales.
“Whilst this legislation has been designed to enable police to take immediate action against squatters who seize properties and inflict substantial damage, the question of whether police will galvanise themselves into action remains to be seen. Your correspondent fears they will not.
“The other question is what, if anything, this new legislation will do for the large number of genuinely homeless people within the UK desperately in search of somewhere to live. Probably very little.
“So, we finally have a legal remedy within criminal law to allow direct action against squatters by their residential victims. Of course, this legislation provides no remedy for the commercial properties that remain easy targets for squatters. Only time will tell whether the new legislation is the answer to an ongoing problem.”
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