Anti-Squatting Law Challenged in Brighton Court

A major test of Section 144 occurred today in a Brighton Magistrate’s Court – with the criminalisation of squatting dealt a serious blow.

Three people faced the charges of squatting in a residential property under Section 144 of LASPO, and obstruction of a police officer. They were arrested on 3rd September 2012, just two days after Section 144’s passage into law, in a high-profile eviction by police. All three were found to have no case to answer for obstruction of a police officer, whilst two were found to have no case to answer for the squatting charge. The case continues tomorrow morning for the final defendant.

The prosecution had to prove that the three defendants lived in the property, and that it was a ‘residential property’. The new law’s definition of both these points, as SQUASH have shown elsewhere, is incredibly vague and broad. In this instance the property was divided into upstairs flats and downstairs shop, with the defendants arguing that the upstairs was used as a social centre and the downstairs the space in which some people actually ‘lived’.

The prosecution’s evidence, living up to the defence lawyer’s description of it as ‘woefully inadequate’, failed to prove that two of the three defendants even ‘lived’ in the property at all, let alone its status as ‘residential’.

Toby, one of the defendants, said:

“it’s proved to be ridiculous – it’s not even that we were found ‘not guilty’, but that there was absolutely no case to answer. The advice to squatters from this is don’t plead guilty. Presence in a building is not enough, they have to prove with documentary evidence that you actually live there.”

The Brighton trial highlights once again that Section 144 is ill-thought through legislation, rushed undemocratically through parliament in the midst of a reactionary media storm, workable on the pretext that people do not know their rights or have access to good legal defences.

The ‘right’ of police to evict with force, so often presumed by them to be inalienable, was not this time retrospectively sanctioned. With no crime having been committed, the police intervened with force in a situation which falls under civil and not criminal jurisdiction. This is a very serious problem with Section 144 that SQUASH have pointed out many times before.

Section 144 empowers the police to deploy force in intervening in very complicated housing situations. In cases such as this one in Brighton, it results in evictions which make people immediately homeless – as well as facing criminal charges – because the return of a property to its privatised, empty state is prioritised above all else.

This Brighton case presents a fundamentally important precedent for others facing criminal prosecution under Section 144: highlighting that the vague definition of ‘living in’ and ‘residential’ not only makes gross miscarriages of justice likely but also creates space for us to fight this pernicious law.

More information on the Brighton case, which continues tomorrow, can be found here: