The 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.