Like the unseasonably hot weather, the debate on the government’s proposed criminalisation of squatting is sending the mercury soaring as the temperature rises.
On Monday the Guardian published a letter from 160 leading legal figures saying a change in the law relating to squatting is not needed and accusing ministers of fostering “ill-informed debate”. I reported on that letter in my post Squatting Law is Being Misrepresented.
The letter provoked many responses, including this letter to the Guardian from Conservative MP, Mike Weatherley, who thunders:
“The self-proclaimed experts who signed the letter, sheep-like, have a huge vested interest when it comes to fees after all.”
Why is it that whenever lawyers try to defend a position on matters such as squatting or, to use another example, legal aid – in either case areas of expertise hardly offering up Goldman sacks of derivative backed wealth – the argument is reduced to a slanging match about lawyers’ fees? Let's face it, if they were only in it for the money, those lawyers would be trousering the more Goldman-like figures on offer in Big Law.
It’s a cheap shot.
More substantively, Mr Weatherly argues:
“The police will not assist with an eviction in most cases without the backing of a magistrate's order. This takes sometimes a few hours, sometimes it's the next day. In the meantime, the unlawful occupiers will have been damaging your home, using your electricity, drinking your wine and sleeping in your beds.”
But there’s the rub. It is a question of enforcement. Creating a new law would not necessarily solve that. The Police should be directed to enforce the existing law.
David Smith on the nearlylegal blog writes a cogent reply to Mr Weatherley’s letter from the point of view of someone with years of experience in dealing with squatters, mostly for the benefit of property owners. He says:
“Squatting a property rightly occupied by someone else is already a criminal offence. One the Police are generally reluctant to spend effort enforcing. Creating a new offence of squatting in general ignores the value of squatting in making efficient use of empty property and is not likely to make the Police change their enforcement priorities.”
The issue is generally talked about in terms of residential property, because that is where most of the squatting takes place.
Commercial property owners have to obtain a court order before they can evict squatters.
As well as addressing enforcement of the existing law for residential property, there is, I believe, a case for making the same law apply equally to commercial premises (Option 2 in the government’s consultation document – for more on which see my post Squatting: Should it be Made a Crime?).
The consultation ends soon on 5 October 2011.