Squatting Made LESS Simple
Squatting means occupying empty property or land (without permission) to live in, or for other uses. It happens everywhere, whatever the legal situation, as people need space. In England and Wales it has until now been widespread and legal.
SQUATTING – THE LEGAL SITUATION
A new law has been made for England and Wales which came into force on 1st September 2012. This makes trespassing in a residential property with the intention of living there a criminal offence.
It is so far unclear how the police will be expected to decide whether a crime might be taking place. If people declare themselves to be squatters in clearly residential property they would risk arrest and so losing their home. BUT the law would not cover situations where;
• people are or were tenants (including sub-tenants) of the property,
• people have an agreement with someone with a right to the property,
• the people in the property are not intending to live there (merely visiting maybe),
• the property is not residential.
Under these circumstances the police should not have any interest in the people or property and should be persuaded of this. You don’t have to open the door to talk to them, explain through the letter box or from an upstairs window. Get involved in local networks so you can go to neighbours and help explain the situation from outside.
The law does say that you commit an offence if you know “or ought to know” that you are a trespasser, so remember to give a “no comment” interview if you are arrested.
NON-RESIDENTIAL SQUATTING IS STILL LEGAL
The law says “a building is “residential” if it is designed or adapted, before the time of entry, for use as a place to live”, and includes “any structure or part of a structure (including a temporary or moveable structure)”. Otherwise squatting is still legal. It is not clear whether a residential part of a pub (for example) would therefore count as a “building” but it would be safest not to live in that bit (just use it for other things).
Section 6 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 makes it an offence to force entry to a building which is occupied, and this includes squats. This will no longer help against the police if they are enforcing the new law against squatters in residential properties, but is otherwise still valid. The new Legal Warning, available from ASS, will explain the law and the fact that building is not residential. Other people will have rights under the Protection from Eviction Act 1977 for example.
FINDING A PLACE
There are thousands of empty properties and the new law will not change this. Non-residential property tends to be larger, and the law change generally means that it makes sense to get together with like-minded people. Local networks can be useful for support and keeping an eye on empties, as well as developing campaigns against empties, against local councils using the new legislation ……
It will be even more worth carrying out research on empties with the new law. Finding out who the owners are can help predict how they might react to finding out the place is occupied, whether they might be up for coming to an agreement….. There is no simple link but ……
The best place to look for is one that has empty for some time and is not going to be put to use for some time. These will probably be fairly run down and need some work on them, but if you know you have time it’s more worthwhile.
The local council’s Planning Department has a register of all planning applications and decisions which you can see online. This will tell you who, if anyone, has made an application or got permission.
The Land Registry records ownership of most places. You can get the details for a particular place at landregistry.gov.uk. It costs £4 per place (with a credit or debit card). If there is both a freehold and leasehold owner registered, the leaseholder is the one with rights to the place who can evict you. Don’t assume that if you can’t find an owner, or if the owner is dead or bankrupt that you are automatically safe. Dead owners have executors and bankrupt companies have administrators.
Once you are inside you will find more useful information in the mail and any documents left around. Keep them all carefully.
Many empty properties can be walked into as they have become insecure through vandalism. You do not want to commit “criminal damage” and the police may try to accuse you of this, but they would only be able to do anything if there were witnesses. Once you are in, you should change the locks or secure every door and other way in so that you control entry and are physically, as well as legally, protected. You should repair any damage done by other people straight away.
IF THE POLICE SHOW UP
As explained above there are very specific conditions in which the new law has effect, and the police SHOULD not take any interest otherwise. You should try to explain the situation to them without letting them into the property. The police are not meant
to act as agents for private individuals or other landlords, but unfortunately they often seem to think that if they have been given access, this gives them the right to give access to someone else, or that you have given up any rights under S6 CLA.
We are going to go through a long phase of getting to understand how the police will act.
There should be some guidance from the Association of Chief Police Officers which should make what we can expect more clear, and which should explain to the police at least some of things they might do wrong, which we will be able to refer to.
Even before the new law there has been an increase over many years in police threatening to arrest people for some charge unless people move out. Clearly if they believe that a criminal offence has been committed they would not allow the culprits to simply walk away like this. It is extremely rare for squatters to be charged with things like “burglary”, “criminal damage” or “extraction of electricity” which are the police’s favourite excuses for carrying out evictions without lawful authority. ASS would of course recommend that you don’t leave yourself open to be charged with such offences and think that the best way to do this is by giving a “No Comment” interview if you are arrested.
In general record as much information about any police officers threatening you and your home, including their numbers, and anything they say. If things go wrong contact ASS or your local network/whatever to discuss making a complaint, and/or suing them.
If you get arrested you still do not have to say anything, and it is a good idea not to. You have a right to your own solicitor, we advise you not to go with the duty solicitor, who often work with the police. Only accept a solicitor who is happy with you giving a no comment interview. If the police know that you have committed a crime then they will charge you. If not they will just be fishing for excuses, and you may something which can be misinterpreted. Some police like to believe (when it helps them) that doing repairs is criminal damage for example.
The chances of staying forever are extremely thin. At some point someone will turn up with a right too the property and want you out.
We THINK that most evictions will still not take place until there has been a court case. As well as use of the new law, there is old law which means that you might be evicted without a court hearing if the property wasn’t actually empty (you made a mistake) or is due to be moved into by a tenant who needs the place to live in. The first case is called a Displaced Residential Occupier (DRO) and the second a Protected Intending Occupier (PIO). A PIO needs to have the right form of certificate or statement to show that they do have a right to live in the property and need to do so. If they have done what they need to you can be arrested for not moving out.
Court claims have a normal possession order claim and can also include the slightly speeded up Interim Possession Order which includes criminal sanctions. In other words if an IPO is made and served on you properly you could be arrested for not moving out within 24 hours. A normal possession order has to be enforced by court bailiffs, who can be quite busy, particularly in Central London.
If you get court papers talk to ASS about coming up with a defence. It’s amazing what they can get wrong, including not even having a right to the place. Normally defences are a bit more technical.
Don’t put too much effort into major repairs if you don’t know how long you’ll have there. Do put effort into working out a decent relationship with your neighbours. This can help in all sorts of ways.
You can get DIY advice online or from good books like the Collins Complete DIY manual, which should be in your local library if such things still exist.
Did we say to get a network together? Have you done it yet?
WHATEVER THEY SAY, SQUATTING WILL STAY!
ADVISORY SERVICE FOR SQUATTERS (ASS)
Angel Alley, 84b Whitechapel High St,
London, E1 7QX.
Open Monday to Friday 2-6pm
Tel: 0203 216 0099 / Fax: 0203 216 0098
Squatters Action for Secure Homes (SQUASH): www.squashcampaign.org
Eviction Resistance Network: 07591 415860 /
or for local support:
Practical Squatters Nights (every Tuesday 7-8pm rotating between South and East London) 56a InfoShop 56 Crampton Street SE17 / LARC 61 Fieldgate St E1
South London Network
Squatters Legal Network – sln@aktivix
Bristol Housing Action Movement – http://www.public-interest.co.uk/bham/
version 1st September 2012