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The squatters debate – the Minister, the MP and the sheep …

sheepThe squatting discussion (if it can be dignified by that name) is getting rather entertaining. Even perhaps a bit silly. Its difficult to resist doing another post …

As reported on this blog last week, lawyers (or sheep as I suppose we must now call ourselves) have been getting fed up with all the misrepresentation in the press and ministerial statements about the law relating to squatting. So a letter signed by 158 QC’s, solicitors, barristers and academics – all specialists in housing law – was published in the Guardian last week.

As gleefully described by the Nearly Legal blog, this bought forth some entertaining comments from our Housing Minister Mr Shapps, effectively proving the point of the letter.

This was followed by a letter from MP Mike Weatherby in the Guardian. And THAT was followed by two more posts on Nearly Legal here and here, plus supportive posts (for the sheep) from the Pain Smith blog  and Jon Dickens blog.

The Nearly Legal wine post covers most of the points in the Weatherby letter, but I think there is scope for a few more comments. Just in case people are taking it seriously.

The squatter myths

Just to set the record straight.  No-one is saying that that is it all right for outraged law abiding homeowners to be locked out of their homes for weeks on end while lawyers faff around bringing expensive court cases, allowing the squatters time to consume the contents of fridge and cellar before moving on to the next hapless victim.

This simply does not happen.  Or if it does, it is most unusual. Most squatters will take care to choose a property which is genuinely empty. They are looking for somewhere to live. Naturally they will want to be able to stay there as long as possible. And obviously if they choose someone’s home, this isn’t going to happen.

For example if they move into Sally’s house while she is on a day trip to visit her Great Aunt Mary, Sally is not going to waste much time in getting the law on them. All the sympathy will be with Sally, and none with the squatters. Not a smart move.

Sympathy for the devil

But as organisations such as Crisis and Shelter will tell you, many squatters ARE deserving of sympathy. If there is a property lying empty and unused for a long time, it is difficult to see why the poor and the destitute should not be able to stay there for a while if they do no damage. As they are there without permission, the land owner will always be able to evict them within a few weeks by going to court (I have written a do it yourself kit they can use if they want to save costs).

Squatters very rarely choose to squat in a property which is being lived in. If they do, as Nearly Legal, myself and the 158 signatories of the letter in the guardian have pointed out (as indeed has the governments own online advice leaflet), the police have the power to remove them WITHOUT a court order, if they refuse to move after being asked to do so.

If the police don’t do this, this is not the fault of the law. It is the fault of the police. In which case it is difficult to see how changing the law is going to be much help. A better solution would be to provide more police training, along with funding for sufficient manpower to use the powers they already have.

A few points on Mr Weatherby’s letter:

Lawyer’s don’t actually have “a huge vested interest when it comes to fees”. It is simply not a big area of work for most housing lawyers. There are a few high profile cases in the press, but I suspect that they are high profile due to their rarity, not because they happen a lot. Squatters are generally careful to choose properties which are empty and neglected.

Mr Weatherby may think that “Squatters should be instantly arrested for being there at all”. I think Shelter and Crisis would disagree with that. And in the few cases where instant arrest would be appropriate, there is nothing to stop this happening other than police reluctance to do it.

By the way, so far as I am aware, there is no necessity for a ‘Magistrates Order’. I don’t know where that one came from. Have any of my fellow sheep ever used a Magistrates order to get squatters out?

Sinister implications of the proposed squatter laws

The thing which worries me about the whole squatting debate is not the points raised by Mr Weatherby. It is the prospect of a new law which

1. Will make criminals of homeless people just trying to find a bit of shelter and get off the streets, and
2. Will make criminals of people using the time honoured procedure of occupying land to make a political protest (see here and here).

And the fact that these points are never mentioned by the (Tory) politicians.

Sheep picture by secret teneriffe

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8 Responses to The squatters debate – the Minister, the MP and the sheep …

  1. This so needs reiterating, because I’m convinced that the effects this legislation would bring in via the back door, so to speak, are not lost on those seeking to change the law.

    Many thanks for the credit and for using my sheep too, BTW! :)

  2. Number of squatting cases I have dealt with in past 12 months = 1.

    This wasn’t actually a squat, it was a private landlord who’d let to their agent to sublet to the tenant and when the relationship between landlord and agent went sour the landlord started trying to force the tenant to pay the rent to them despite the tenancy agreement being with the agent and when she wouldn’t (because that would leave her open to possession from the agent) they claimed she was a squatter and tried to IPO her.

    They then didn’t even turn up to the hearing and got a costs order against them.

    What’s the betting that if “all squatting = offence” comes in, we’ll see more shenanigans like this, with landlords trying to circumvent possession by lying to Police that the tenant’s a squatter.

  3. So then, one can take it that in the areas of London you, Ben and JS, work in – there are not many cases of homeowners coming home to find squatters rifling through their fridge, eating their comestibles, and refusing to let them in.

    It would be interesting to know if ANY lawyers or housing workers have had any experience of this sort of thing happening. My feeling has always been that the squatting problem, so far as people homes are concerned, is greatly exaggerated.

  4. Oh I can say I get lots of complaints about squatters regularly, but squatting in the Suzy Butler sense, i,e, the landlord considers it squatting when the notice runs out. Maybe this is where government get their idea, especially as Mike Weatherley I seem to recall, was behind the Suzy Butler fiasco last year.

    Maybe it should be called ‘Butlering’.

  5. To be fair if Ben’s in Saarrrff East and I’m in East London, neither area is particularly awash with owner occupiers in the first place I’d have thought. Though my colleague did recently do one where a Council tenant’s premises was squatted when he had a guest over who waited for him to go out then brought all his mates over and changed the locks. Police claimed ’twas a civil matter so we had to IPO them.

    But other than that… nope, can’t think of anything.



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Tessa Shepperson

Tessa is a lawyer and specialises in creating products and services which help landlords and letting agents learn and understand landlord & tenant law. For example, she runs the Landlord Law website (now in its 14th year) and is a director of Easy Law Training Ltd and Your Law Store. Tessa also sits on the Property Redress Scheme Council. When not working she enjoys reading, cooking and messing around on the computer. You can also find her on Google

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