From 1 September 2012, squatting in a residential property becomes a criminal offence in England and Wales and will carry a maximum sentence of six months in prison. This may be replaced by a £5000 fine, or in certain circumstances, both will be levied.
The law has not been clear on trespass but it is now clear and there will no longer be a necessity for the owner of the property to ask trespassers to leave before calling the police. This was often a stumbling block, as owners were often unwilling to have a face to face encounter with people they perceived as being potentially threatening.
The police will now have a specific duty to arrest anyone suspected of squatting – which will be anyone entering a residential building as a trespasser with the intention to live there without gaining the owner’s consent. ‘Squatters rights’ no longer exist in law and because trespass is now a criminal offence, there is no defence in law.
There is specific guidance which prevents the law acting against tenants who continue to occupy a premises whilst not paying rent and the law also protects anyone who has been led to think they have a right of residence – this is an unusual situation but a not unheard of scam of bogus letting agents, who pocket the fee and let the ‘tenants’ face the police.
This new legislation is not retrospective, so anyone occupying a property under these conditions before 1 September are not liable to be prosecuted under the law, which is part of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.