Get off my land….and into jail?
The Protection from Eviction Act 1977 ("PEA 1977") was introduced to stop unscrupulous Landlords using heavy handed tactics to remove tenants. Under PEA 1977, it is illegal to threaten or use violence to enter a property where someone is in occupation and opposes entry. This protection has been seized upon by some trespassers to delay being evicted from a property which they have no right to occupy.
There is a common misconception that trespassing, or `squatting` as it is commonly known when the trespassing involves a property, is only a civil wrong. Under the Criminal Law Act 1977, it is an offence for a trespasser to remain in a residential property after the owner of the property has provided the trespass with proof that they own the property and asked them to leave. However, the police are rarely, if ever, willing to provide any assistance.
The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act ("the Act") received Royal Assent on 1 May 2012. Section 144 of the Act contains a new criminal offence of squatting in residential premises. The offence is committed if someone:
• enters a residential property as a trespasser
• knows or ought to have known that they are trespassing; and
• intends to occupy the property
Unlike under the previous act when an offence occurs only if the trespasser refuses to vacate when asked by the property owner to do so, under the new Act, squatting itself is an offence. If found guilty, a trespasser could be fined up to £5,000 or sentenced to up to 51 weeks in prison.
Whether the Act is a `game changer` will depend upon whether there is a change in the police`s reluctance to offer any assistance to residential landowners who find their properties occupied by third parties.
The Act applies only to residential properties. Commercial property owners and owners of open land will receive no assistance from the Act.
All landowners should remember that prevention is better than cure. Property owners, whether commercial, residential or agricultural, should avoid leaving their properties vulnerable to squatters, undertake regular inspections of any properties which are empty and keep properties locked and land fenced off where possible.
Whilst it is believed that the Act may come into force in September 2012, no date has yet been confirmed. For the time being, residential property owners will need to rely on tried and trusted, albeit time consuming and costly, possession proceedings.
Rollits Property Dispute Resolution Team has a wealth of experience in dealing with trespassers, whether it be the removal of trespassers or providing proactive advice on steps to be taken to minimise the risk of falling victim to trespassers in the first place.
This article is for general guidance only. It provides useful information in a concise form. Action should not be taken without obtaining specific legal advice.