Darren Smith owns a property in Southwark, London that he previously lived at and has recently invested over £200,000 in renovating it for sale. It is a three-bedroom house and his agent informed him that he had a potential buyer coming to see it for a third viewing who was expected to make an offer on it. Unfortunately, his agent had some other news for him regarding the property. Someone had drilled and changed the locks and moved in. Darren got on the phone to the police who set out to investigate.
The police discovered two families, of Romanian and Spanish nationalities (around a dozen people in total), were squatting in Darren’s house. The squatters claimed to have rented the property off a lady after answering an advert on Gumtree and showed the police a purported tenancy agreement.
The police advised the squatters that, if what they were saying was correct, they had rented it from someone who did not have the right to let it and it was a scam. The police explained that the tenancy agreement was worthless and that the property was owned by Mr Smith who had not authorised anyone to let it out. The police told the squatters that they should leave the property. However, they refused to leave and told the police that they wouldn’t leave, even if a court ordered them to.
Given they were refusing to leave Darren asked the police if they were going to arrest the squatters. He was shocked to hear that the police didn’t intend to do anything further about it. Darren escalated matters to an Inspector at the Metropolitan Police who was of the view that the illegal occupants were not trespassing and suggested he went to court and got a civil order to evict them. Darren explained that legally they were trespassing and, that by doing so on residential property, they were also committing a criminal offence.
However, he was told that the Metropolitan Police had a policy of not arresting or removing people from property where they were living illegally, as they would “not facilitate making people homeless”. The Inspector explained that it did not matter whether a criminal offence was being committed, the police would not take any further action. Darren asked what the police’s position would be if a young family went on holiday only to return to find that the locks to their home had been changed and a family of squatters were living there. To his disbelief, the Inspector, when pressed, said under no circumstances would the police forcibly remove them. Darren asked how often the police came across the type of situation he found himself in and was told it was quite common in London!
Although Darren could not believe his ears, he was pleased that the call was on a recorded line (listen to recordings above) because he thought without this evidence nobody would believe this could be the position of the police to a crime which was affecting countless innocent property owners in London and probably other major British cities.
It might have ended there but Darren is a barrister and is determined not to let matters lie. He has written a detailed email to the police explaining the legal position and pointing out to them that it is an offence to trespass knowingly in a residential property. He is currently waiting for a reply from the legal department of the Metropolitan Police. He sent his email nearly a month ago now and all he has received is a reply acknowledging receipt of it. He has also contacted his local MP, Esther McVey, but despite her raising this matter with the police she has also been met with a wall of silence, so far!
The coalition government made squatting in residential properties an offence in 2012. s144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 makes it an offence to trespass in a building that is a residential premises. The law was specifically passed so that the police would deal with any squatters at residential property under criminal law rather than the owner having to go through the costly and lengthy civil court process. The offence is punishable by a fine of a maximum of £5,000 or up to 51 weeks imprisonment. The law is in place. All that it requires is for the police to enforce it.
Darren’s problem is not that there is no law to protect his property; it is that the police are refusing to enforce the law that exists. In a situation like this there is surprisingly little someone can do to make the police take action. Darren believes that it may be possible to take action in court against the police for a failure to protect one’s European Convention right to the peaceful enjoyment of one’s property. However, that has yet to be tested in court and would be risky and significantly more costly and time consuming than going through the civil court process to remove the squatters.
While it is right that the police should remain independent and retain a discretion about how to enforce the law in their local area, it is completely wrong that the police should formulate a policy of not enforcing a law that parliament has decided should be in force, for what seems to be politically motivated reasons. Parliament enacted s144 in order to protect homeowners like Darren. It should not be up to the police to just ignore this and leave him high and dry.
Stuck between a rock and a hard place in waiting for the police to respond, Darren has had to take matters into his own hands. He has gone down the costly and time-consuming civil route to recover his property, the very thing that the law was enacted to avoid. Even though Darren can, and will, do all the legal work himself he estimates that the final costs to him, with court fees and fees to High Court Enforcement Officers (that will be needed to remove the squatters), will still be a few thousand pounds; not to mention the cost of the damage to the property (which was like new before the squatters moved in) and his time in drafting the legal documents and attending court.
Victims of squatting not themselves legally qualified would have to instruct lawyers and the costs would be significantly more than what Darren will incur. With the chances of recovering such costs from squatters being virtually zero the whole process just adds insult to injury!
Because of this Darren felt he needed to bring his story to the media in the hope that it will put pressure on the police to change their position and assist victims of this awful and stressful crime. Darren explains that, unlike many crimes which are done in the instant of the moment, this crime lingers being committed for months which adds to the stress of the victim; a victim who will be stricken with worry of the ongoing and escalating legal costs and the damage occurring to their property. Added to this is the stress from the frustration of being powerless to act, until the civil court process has run its course. He fears it could financially ruin some people and may drive others to depression and self-harm.
Given that the police will act if there are allegations of hate speech on social media it seems extraordinary that they refuse to act in a case involving the denial of someone’s right to the peaceful enjoyment of their own property.
It is time that the police got behind enforcing the law as it applies to squatters. It is ridiculous to assert that not making them homeless should be a consideration. Squatters trespassing at residential property shouldn’t be allowed to get away with taking those buildings, without criminal sanctions. It should be noted that the law makes a distinction between residential and commercial buildings in this regard and it is not a criminal offence to squat at commercial properties.
In the case of a house that has been done up for sale where it is obvious that trespassers should have known they were trespassing or where they have subsequently become aware that they are trespassing, the law is clear cut. The police should act to remove the trespassers and take criminal action against them in the courts, if they refuse to leave.
There is little point in having laws if they are not enforced. Darren has been advised by the police that if he takes steps to remove the trespassers himself he could be arrested. It is a ridiculous view of the law that would lead the police to this position. Time for some commonsensical clear thinking and decisive action. The law is there to protect homeowners like Darren. It is time that it was enforced.
As a final irony, Darren sought guidance from the government website on squatting https://www.gov.uk/squatting-law. The government’s own guidance to Darren is that he should contact the police!