Ministers are ‘obscuring the law’ around squatting say lawyers

In a letter to The Guardian, 160 leading lawyers, academics and housing experts state their concern with a recent surge of misleading media stories around squatting, and accuse Government ministers of stirring up public fear around the subject by making statements in regard to these stories that are simply legally wrong. The motives of ministers, as Shiv Malik explains, is no doubt to try and rally sensationalist support for government proposals to criminalise squatting.

In particular it is the stories of squatters moving into peoples homes that the signatories of the letter describe as creating ‘fear for homeowners, confusion for the police and ill informed debate among both the public and politicians on reforming the law’.

We want it to be clear that it is already a criminal offence for a squatter to occupy someone’s home, or a home that a person intends to occupy, under the Criminal Law Act 1977. A homeowner will be a displaced residential occupier, or if they are intending to move into the property, a protected intended occupier. In either case, it is a criminal offence for a squatter to remain in the property as soon as they have been told of the displaced occupier or a protected occupier. The police can arrest any trespasser who does not leave. The displaced or protected occupier can use force to enter the property and reasonable force to remove the trespassers.

The letter goes on to explain that a case such as that of doctor Cockerell and his wife could and should have been dealt with by existing law, and that in fact the proposals being made to change the law would make very little or no practical difference to their case. Despite this, in the London Evening Standard Grant Shapps, Minister of State for Housing and Local Government, was quoted as saying that the case of the Cockerells’ showed the need to speed up the timetable for the introduction of the new proposals into law. This is quite clearly not true, and the letter criticises ministers of ‘obscuring’ the law and preventing any real discussion of the proposed criminalisation:

We are very concerned that a proper debate over the value and effect of the new proposals to further criminalise occupation of buildings is threatened by widespread distortions of the current law. As the proposals would have far reaching consequences for many vulnerable people, there is a need for informed factual discussion rather than a response based on sensationalist misrepresentation.

They call on Ministers to correct any innacurate statements they have made, and clarify the extent of the current law in regard to squatting. They also call on the media’s duty to ‘inform their readers, rather than create fear and confusion through misrepresentation’.