The Legal Aid and Sentencing Bill: what does it really mean?

The following post is from Rueben Taylor, and was originally published in a slightly different form over on the New Internationalist blog.

Last week, Prime Minister David Cameron announced something or other about burglars and squatting and knife crime and legal aid and … well it was all rather confusing really wasn’t it?

So what did it really mean? Buried among all the headline grabbing bogeyman hunting, what exactly has the government announced?

The top legal aid story, was that support will be withdrawn from squatters. Now, anyone with any knowledge of squatting will have raised a quizzical eyebrow at this announcement, racking their brains for a recollection of any squat ever that managed to secure legal aid for their eviction case. Despite the newspapers stories which claim to tell the tale of scrounging squatters squeezing the state to defend their ill-gotten gains, the fact is that getting legal aid is nigh on impossible for most squatters. Squatters are generally evicted on the grounds of trespass. Trespass is a civil offence. To get legal aid for a civil offence you have to stand a good prospect of success – a criterion squatters are highly unlikely to fulfil, unless they are not really squatters, but rather ex-tenants and so on. Unsurprisingly, the government has been unable to comment on the amount the squatters have actually cost the legal aid system.

As Liz Davies from the Haldane Law Society has explained:

Withdrawing legal aid from squatters is yet another punitive measurement. Currently, squatters are only entitled to legal aid if they have a defence to the possession claim, and if that defence has at least 50% prospects of success. In most possession claims against squatters, the squatters will have no defence in law and legal aid is not available for them to be represented. So the government’s proposal means that occupiers whom the owner has characterised as squatters – but where in fact there may have been a previous tenancy or other right giving the occupier to live in the property – will not be assisted by legal aid to raise their legal rights and have the Court decide whether or not they really are squatters.

Yet again, the carefully cultivated antipathy of the general public towards squatters is being used as a smokescreen to hide measures that are really attacks on some of the most vulnerable people in society.

Des Hudson from the Law Society has explained the real meaning of last week’s announcement:

Today’s planned legislation will disproportionately impact on the most needy and the least able to defend themselves, by effectively scrapping social welfare law from the legal aid scheme. The existing system of legal aid provides a crucial safety net for some of the most vulnerable people in our society – the elderly, the disabled, the abused, children and the mentally ill – suffering from some of the most complex problems relating to homelessness, destitution, domestic violence, and the separation of families. Ministers propose removing housing, employment, family, money, and debt from the legal aid scheme in one fell swoop. This is a bad day for access to justice.

Of course, the government and the right-wing press would much rather feed and nurture public discrimination against groups such as squatters, than admit that their measures will leave defenceless the victims of domestic abuse and the children of broken homes.

To muddy the waters even further, Cameron hitched the launch of this pernicious bill to a declaration of intent to consult on the criminalisation of squatting. Just in case anyone was worrying that the government might have started to see sense, and recognise that their proposals do not even make sense in terms of their own cost-cutting agenda, piling greater and greater costs onto already creaking social housing and justice systems.

The criminalisation of squatting is the criminalisation of homelessness, in the middle of a housing crisis. Just yesterday we heard further warnings of a “tidal wave” of mortgage defaults and home repossessions, while 5 million people are already waiting for council houses, housing benefits are being slashed, secure council tenancies ended, and measures trialled in London to criminalise rough-sleeping. At the same time, nearly a million buildings stand empty.

Cameron would have us believe that these measures are designed to protect ordinary homeowners from the ever-present possibility that squatters take over while they pop out for a pint of milk. In fact, strong and fully adequate laws already exist which protect the rights of owner-occupiers, and make it illegal to squat a house in which someone lives, or in which they are intending to live. Criminalising squatting is about protecting property speculators, who keep buildings empty while families are being forced out of their homes; and unscrupulous landlords, who want an easy route to evict vulnerable tenants.

Even in terms of the government’s own cost-cutting agenda, the criminalisation of squatting makes no sense. How exactly does the government propose to re-house the estimated 10,000 squatters in London alone? Piling pressure onto an already overburdened housing system, and costs onto the police service and justice system which will be required to enforce these new laws whilst labouring under their own programme of cuts, these proposals are not just morally wrong, they’re also economically nonsensical.

From every angle, this government is prioritising the interests of the rich at the expense of the poor. Any moves to criminalise squatting are, as with this Legal Aid and Sentencing Bill, attacks on some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

To find out more about the campaign to against the criminalisation of squatting, please visit www.squashcampaign.org, and see our report, Criminalising the Vulnerable: Why we can’t criminalise our way out of a housing crisis.