Advisory Service for Squatters’ Response to the Consultation

The ASS provides legal and practical advice to squatters and other homeless people, and have been doing so since 1975; here they offer their comments on the government’s consultation paper ‘Options for dealing with squatters

The government consultation attacking squatting is a very ill-informed document.

It admits to a lack of information, but refers to “public concern” meaning in fact a campaign by a number of newspapers, as a reason for making changes. The consultation is apparently trying to find out what is going on while at the same time proposing a savage response to what is somehow believed to be happening.

One thing the document is asking for information on is what proportion of squatters occupy empty property. This question clearly comes from reading distorted newspaper articles and not investigating what happens in reality.

Squatters occupy empty property. If the property had an existing or planned occupier the squatters have made a mistake and have to leave. Apart from the legal aspect, squatters are looking for a home where they will be able to live for as long as possible. This obviously excludes places that are occupied.

Media coverage of squatting tends to assume that property is owned by an individual, and they use the term “homeowner” even when the property in question is not their, or anyone’s home. The vast majority of squatting takes place in property owned by institutions and left empty for a significant amount of time.

The document states that the reason why people’s homes can not be squatted(under S7 CLA 1977) is because they might conceivably be made homeless. In fact the law was passed because of a similar political and media campaign which invented stories of people having their homes squatted while they were at the shops or on holiday in the 70s. The information included in the consultation paper is confused. IPOs are referred to on page 8 of the consultation paper as being “intended for urgent repossession by a displaced occupier”. This is inaccurate. There is no stipulation that IPO applicants must be displaced occupiers nor that the premises claimed need to be urgently put into use. Many properties evicted by Interim Possession Orders remain empty for months or years afterwards. Figures are quoted in Chapter 2 for the number of orders made by courts against trespassers. This includes both Interim Possession Orders and ordinary Possession Orders, ignoring the fact that IPOs have to be followed up by a full possession order, so including IPOs means a duplication. From these figures 531, not 747 properties have had possession orders made against trespassers. The section describing the civil court procedure jumps between trespassers and tenants, and refers to IPOs as being alternative to a full possession order, rather than additional.

Even more confusing is the document’s use of the term “occupier”. Unlike normal usage, an occupier in this document appears to be someone who would have a right to occupy a property were it not being occupied by someone else. This is in part because of the difficulty in defining who a person with a right to occupation might be, and shows the dangers of ill-considered reactions. The reality is that the existing laws already contain massive scope for abuse by all types of landlords. It is unlikely that the proposed ‘counter-balancing’ offence of ‘knowingly or recklessly accusing a legitimate tenant of being a squatter’ will function as an effective deterrent. In our experience as a housing advisory service we have found it very difficult to report and follow up offences under section 6 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 (such as illegal evictions) and Section 75 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 (false statements for the purposes of an IPO application).

Another piece of confusion caused by policy reacting to press stories is the mention at the end of the forward to other plans “to stop squatters getting legal aid to fight eviction”. This is clearly a result of confusion spread firstly by the Daily Telegraph

where squatters were given advice by a duty solicitor in court. People who are accused of trespass and have only technical defences can not get legal aid because they have no chance of winning. To have a chance of winning and so of legal aid they would need a substantive argument such as a licence, or that a public body seeking to evict them had failed in a duty towards them resulting in their position. However, the group who would be most affected by the proposals to abolish access to civil legal aid are travellers and those living on unauthorised encampments. It is telling that the Ministry of Justice Equality Impact Assessment makes no mention of such groups (20% of whom according to the Irish Traveller Movement in Britain are statutorily homeless1). Neither is any reliable information about squatters and the vulnerably housed provided.

It is not surprising in light of all this to read Crispin Blunt claim that there are avenues other than squatting open to those in need – presumably he read this in a newspaper too.

ASS would recommend any organization or individual who knows the reality of squatting and homelessness to respond to this

( Irish Traveller Movement in Britain, (2011) p. 3. ‘Memorandum by the Irish Traveller Movement in Britain on

the Localism Bill’, London: ITMB