Should squatting in commercial premises be criminalised?

22 May 2014

With the introduction of s.144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 however, squatting in a residential property became a criminal offence punishable by up to 6 months imprisonment and a fine of up to £5,000.  The situation for commercial landlords remains unchanged and eviction of squatters can be a lengthy and expensive process.

At the time of its implementation, speculation abounded that squatters would be forced to target commercial premises instead; now that the dust has settled, there is mounting evidence that this fear is being realised.  The new law has resulted in only 33 arrests with approximately a third of those leading to a conviction.  Considering that the Ministry of Justice estimates there are approximately 20,000 squatters living in England and Wales, these figures may seem disproportionate.  The significant increase in vacant commercial properties following the economic decline may well have exacerbated the problem – in particular, pub closures have provided an option for squatters, being commercial buildings usually with living accommodation. 

In the aftermath, two opinions have arisen.  Mike Weatherley, a Conservative MP, who has led the campaign against squatters for several years, believes the criminal sanction should be extended to include squatting in commercial premises believing that a criminal record will act as a deterrent.  The British Property Federation also supports extending criminalisation of squatting into the commercial sector.  The BPF point out that landlords have to spend significant sums of money securing their premises and the BPF Insurance Committee draws attention to the fact that insurers are becoming more demanding about the requirements they wish to impose to reduce the risk of damage.   

On the other side of the coin, there remains resistance to any form of criminalisation of squatting.  Indeed, some lawyers including Andrew Arden QC a leading housing law expert, have called for the repeal of s.144 in light of the fact that none of the arrests made so far have involved a squatter displacing the legal owner of the home; all were occupying previously empty properties.  Andrew Arden QC principally objects on the grounds that the law “criminalises action taken by the most needy whose housing needs are certainly going to worsen”.  The Justice Minister, Damian Green however confirmed recently that the Government remains committed to its position and has no intention of repealing the legislation.

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This is not legal advice; it is intended to provide information of general interest about current legal issues.