New Squatting Law Will Not Work and Will Not Deter Squatters

David Lawrenson of www.LettingFocus.com explains why the new squatting law will be hard to make work and criticises the paucity of information on the private rented sector.

Judging by my mailbag, squatting is a major concern for home owners – whether they are landlords or residential occupiers. And rightly so.

Squatting is an area where the law has long been a bit of a mess. And so, the government just had to be seen to be “doing something”. And so it has.

Illegal Occupation

From September 2012 squatting (or rather illegal occupation of a residential property) is criminalised. Previously it was usually just a civil offence.

But the new law may not work because we think all that a squatter now has to do under the new law, is the following*….

1. Go to the Land Registry website and find out who is the owner of the property. This costs £4 currently per enquiry and takes about 3 minutes to do.

2. Make up a plausible looking tenancy agreement with a false name for the tenant and the true name of the landlord. Blank up to date agreements can be found on line in a minute or so, and can be bought for a few pounds.

3. Show the agreement to the policeman or bailiff or owner.

4. If queried, the squatter will say they pay rent in cash to the landlord. Naturally there is no trail for cash and they can always say that the landlord never issues a receipt.

This route does entail some risks to the squatter – not least there is the problem of fraud around the faking of a real landlord’s signature.

So, clever squatters will know you don’t actually need to have been issued with a tenancy agreement for a tenancy to have been “formed”. So, as an alternative, they can either just say

1. That the landlord never gave them an agreement      or

2. That they have been the victim of a fraud themselves from someone impersonating the landlord (in which case a tenancy agreement with the landlords name on could be used, or they could just make up any old tenancy agreement with a random persons name on it and save on the £4 land registry fee.)*

Police are Stuck in the Middle

So, then it comes down to who the police believe.

The landlord / homeowner will then have to go to the trouble to prove that no such implied or actual tenancy agreement was made and that they are the rightful owner. This could all take a few weeks or even a month.

Eventually, once they have proved this and just before the police come again, the illegal occupiers will then need to do a “skip” – which will probably in the middle of the night, possibly onto the next squat.

In time it will be obvious to everyone with some common sense that the new law is not working effectively – at which point the police will not want to get involved anyway. (They may not want to be involved even at the outset though we think most forces will try due to political and media pressure).

New Law Because the Police Did Not Enforce the Old Law

Tessa Shepperson, a respected landlord law expert has pointed out that if the police had enforced the old civil law properly there would be no need for this new law in the first place.

Like me, she goes on to question the point of making up new laws just because the police don’t enforce old laws effectively. She also suggests the police will soon tire of trying to enforce this latest squatter law.

Still, “something has been seen to be done”. So, all in all, a good idea from the government, which plays out well in the Conservative supporting press, but we think a law that will likely prove a bit of a waste of time and hard to make work.

Homelessness

Finally, it is worth saying that “there are squats and there are squats”.

The law should certainly be made to work more effectively to deal with the case where someone squats a property that has been empty for a short period for a valid reason. This type of squatting is nearly always bad.

But many people will be uncomfortable with properties that are empty and abandoned for years on end. This is a different matter, is wrong and if the owners and / or  the authorities cannot get the homes back into a liveable condition, then I have no objection to people coming in and taking them over to live in them.

Local authorities already have powers to get long term abandoned, empty properties back into use. The real problem is they are not using them.

Unlawful Evictions

I also predict that this law will make some landlords think that the tenants who stay on in a property after the expiry of a valid possession order can be removed under the squatters law. They can’t, though we are aware of cases where untrained police have tried to assist them to do just this.

For us at LettingFocus, this new law will simply underscore the lack of knowledge among landlords and their tenants, letting agents, the police and the councils about the private rented sector.

We are particularly critical of the dire lack of information on most local authority and on government websites for tenants and landlords in the private rented sector. They should be doing a lot better.

*Some people have written in to criticise this blog post on the basis that it gives information to squatters. I’m sorry to disappoint them when I tell them that real squatters will not be learning anything from my guide here – they will already know more than I can ever know about how to get round the laws on squatting – both the old law and the new one.

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