Unlawful but not illegal, squatting is a legal grey area. So what are the rights of squatters and the owners of the properties in which they squat?
Defining the Squatter
There is a very negative long held perception about squatters that holds firm to this day. As a person who occupies a property without the owner’s knowledge or consent, they are often branded as public menaces who help themselves to temporarily vacant spaces that they then vandalise or use for sordid activities. The squatter is, however, not as easily defined as that.
Nurtured by a paucity of housing and a prevalence of housing left to rot by councils and private owners, the UK has a large and growing squatting culture. The current 20,000 estimated squatters that currently occupy empty houses, warehouses and offices are a disparate breed who squat for a broad range of reasons, both positive and negative.
While there are certainly a great many squatters who seek to exploit vacant buildings by using them to pursue illegal activities such as drug-taking or to plunder their fixtures and fittings, there are also people forced to squat because they’ve been made homeless, or jobless, and others still who see disused properties as a waste and a missed opportunity and turn them into community cultural spaces.
Positive and Negative Squatting
The distinction between squatters is an important one because it has a direct bearing on the fortunes of the occupied property, the community where it resides and on how concerned the owner should be. Whereas ‘negative squatting’ can lead to vandalism, thievery, crime and disruption within the local community, ‘positive squatting’ can have a beneficial effect.
With the UK desperately short of affordable housing while around 1 million properties stand empty, responsible squatting can be seen as a positive way to recycle space, particularly when it benefits the community rather individuals. Empty buildings have, for example, been turned into community projects, such as free art, theatre and music spaces.
Perhaps more persuasive for landlords is the potential protection squatters offer. Properties left empty are vulnerable to damage – with the pillaging of copper piping being a particular problem – and this may necessitate expensive security guard protection. Squatters can offer landlords free security simply by occupying their property.
With squatting having such a potentially varied impact on a property it’s not surprising then that the law concerning it occupies a grey area.
Although unlawful, squatting is not actually a criminal offence. Squatters can, however, easily fall foul of the law through related actions, such as breaking and entering – through breaking doors and windows to get into a property – or by using gas, electricity and water without being officially connected.
As a civil offence against the owner or landlord of the property, they do have the right to remove squatters but must go to a civil court in order to gain a possession order. Although this process can be time consuming and costly, landlords would be breaking the law if they resorted to more ‘direct’ self-help measures.
Under section 6 of the Criminal Law Act 1977, it is a criminal offence to use violence or a threat of violence to gain entry to a property if someone is present and opposed to that entry. It is not an offence, however, to go in when no one is there and peacefully reclaim the property. Of course, clued up squatters who are determined to stay are well aware of this and would always lock doors and leave at least one person in the property at all times.
Another common concern for landlords is ‘adverse possession’ whereby a squatter that can prove possession of a property for 10 years can become its true owner. This is not as easy as it sounds, however, as upon applying to the Land Registry to become recognised as the owner, the true owner will receive notification and can defeat the application by simple rejection.
There are many instances where squatters and landlords have come to some kind of a legally viable ‘caretaker’ agreement. In these cases the squatters have convinced the landlord about the viability of such an arrangement by laying out the advantages – no costly court costs for eviction and security and repairs carried out at no expense – and by convincing them that they are responsible residents.