Housing Law blog
The mass letter on misrepresentation of trespass will be going out this morning (Monday 26 Sept). The letter will be sent to all the major newspapers, and BBC and ITN news, probably before you read this.
The Guardian has what I think is a good article on the letter on the website here and hopefully also in today’s paper (Monday’s paper which I haven’t seen yet), headlined “Squatting law is being misrepresented to aid ministers’ reforms, claim lawyers”. The Guardian also has an edited version of the letter on the Letters page and the full version with signatures on the website here.
If there is any further media reporting, I’ll add it in to this post.
In all 158 lawyers and academics signed, as did HLPA as an organisation. A huge thank you to everyone who took part. That almost 160 people were prepared to add their names – and those from a wide range of practices – goes to show the strength of feeling (mostly being highly annoyed) on the issue.
For anyone not inclined to click through to the Guardian’s publication of the letter, the full text of the letter reads:
cc Grant Shapps, Crispin Blunt
We are legal academics, solicitors and barristers who practise in housing law acting for landlords, tenants, owners and occupiers. We are concerned that a significant number of recent media reports have stated that squatters who refuse to leave someone’s home are not committing a criminal offence and that a change in the law—such as that proposed by the Government—is needed to rectify this situation. This is legally incorrect, as the guidance published by the Department for Communities and Local Government in March this year makes clear.
We are concerned that such repeated inaccurate reporting of this issue has created fear for homeowners, confusion for the police and ill informed debate among both the public and politicians on reforming the law.
Further, various MPs and Ministers have given statements to the press that are misleading. For example, Housing Minister Grant Shapps told the World Tonight, on the issue of people’s homes being squatted, that “the police don’t act because the law does not support the police acting”. Similarly, Conservative MP Mike Weatherley, who has campaigned in support of the proposed change in the law, was quoted in the Daily Mail as saying that for someone finding squatters in their “home” the situation is that: “if those squatters claim that they did not break into your property — though they almost certainly will have done — you have no powers to throw them out”. Where the property is someone’s home, these statements are quite simply wrong.
By making misleading statements and failing to challenge inaccurate reporting, ministers have furthered the myths being peddled around squatting.
We want it to be clear that it is already a criminal offence for a squatter to occupy someone’s home, or a home that a person intends to occupy, under the Criminal Law Act 1977. A homeowner will be a Displaced Residential Occupier, or if they are intending to move into the property, a Protected Intended Occupier. In either case, it is a criminal offence for a squatter to remain in the property as soon as they have been told of the displaced occupier or a protected occupier. The police can arrest any trespasser who does not leave. The displaced or protected occupier can use force to enter the property and reasonable force to remove the trespassers.
Thus it seems that recent high profile cases, such as those of Dr Oliver Cockerell and his wife or of Miss Julia High, could and should have been dealt with under existing criminal law. If they were not, it is likely that this was due to a lack of understanding of the law on the part of the homeowners or the police, who apparently considered these to be civil law matters.
Unfortunately, Government ministers like Mr Shapps and Mr Blunt have not taken the opportunity to make people’s existing remedies clear when giving interviews or quotes for such prominent articles. For example, in a front page article in the London Evening Standard, Grant Shapps was quoted as saying that the case of the Cockerells showed the need to speed up the timetable for the introduction of the new proposals into law. However, the new proposals would make very little or no practical difference to a case such as the Cockerells’, if the current law was actually used. Instead of clarifying the scope of the law, statements by ministers have at times obscured it.
Squatting of vacant property that is not a home is not a criminal offence. The person with a right to the property who wants to recover possession should go to the civil courts for a possession order to protect their position. However, they can apply for an Interim Possession Order, which typically takes a few days. Once the interim order is made and served, the squatters must leave within 24 hours or commit a criminal offence.
The current law therefore provides a range of options for immediate or rapid possession for those with trespassers in their homes and those seeking to regain possession of vacant property. But newspaper articles have frequently misrepresented this, stating that homeowners face weeks of civil proceedings to regain their homes and that the trespassers have ‘squatter’s rights’ in occupying a home.
We are very concerned that a proper debate over the value and effect of the new proposals to further criminalise occupation of buildings is threatened by widespread distortions of the current law. As the proposals would have far reaching consequences for many vulnerable people, there is a need for informed factual discussion rather than a response based on sensationalist misrepresentation.
We believe that ministers should make clear the extent of the current law and the actual nature of the proposed reforms and correct any statements they have made which are likely to have confused the public. We further believe that newspapers and other media have a duty to inform their readers, rather than create fear and confusion through misrepresentation.
When writing the article for today’s paper, the Guardian asked Grant Shapps, the Minister named as one of those perpetuating the misrepresentation, for his comment. Mr Shapps’ response was, in full:
Housing Minister Grant Shapps said:
“The guidance I published earlier this year makes clear to homeowners where the law stands on squatters, however commonsense suggests there should be quick and tough sanctions available when someone’s home is squatted, without the homeowner necessarily needing to bring a civil case.
“That’s why we’re consulting on making squatting a criminal offence, to shut the door on so-called ‘squatters rights’ once and for all, and end the misery and expense that homeowners can endure.
And so finally, after waiting for so many years, my Mandy Rice Davies moment arrives. Shapps said that? Well, he would, wouldn’t he?
The more eagle-eyed readers might have spotted that saying that homeowners had to bring civil cases and definitely not saying that squatting a home was already a criminal offence was exactly the misrepresentation of which the letter complains.
Mr Shapps gets top marks for persistence, but keeping on with the same schtick in response to a letter from a lot of annoyed lawyers calling him out on precisely that point is not necessarily the brightest of responses.
There would appear to be only three possible explanations: i) The Minister is genuinely unaware of the current law – not a very attractive position when he is bringing proposals to change it and suggesting a considerable carelessness about his brief; ii) The Minister is very badly advised – also not attractive, given that these are the people behind the proposed change in the law; or iii) The Minister is knowingly and flagrantly misrepresenting the current law.
I hope to get some clarification from Mr Shapps as to which of the three applies…
Mr Shapps has also responded to the Guardian article on twitter (@grantshapps), saying:
“grantshapps Grant Shapps MP
These lawyers are sadly out of touch for believing that taking “a few days” to clear squatters is a reasonable outcome!”
Both the Guardian journalist and I responded, both asking for his confirmation that he actually knew that squatting a home was already a criminal offence, but so far, utter silence and tumbleweed.
Of course, how Mr Shapps’ proposals would result in regaining possession in fewer than ‘a few days’ is very much open to question, given the existing police reluctance to respond even where there is a DRO or PIO and an existing offence. Will the police actually get a sudden surge of enthusiasm for dealing with occupied properties? Or does Mr Shapps propose to interfere with the police’s operational independence? Now that would be politically interesting.
But these are issues for the consultation currently underway. Our concern right here is with people being unable – for whatever reason – to get the current law right. And Mr Shapps has failed to get it right even when 158 lawyers advise him on it. And pro bono at that – think what he would have to pay for that kind of advice. Never let it be said that we are not public spirited.
Things have moved on about the idea of a letter from housing lawyers. A letter has been prepared for housing lawyers and law academics to sign and arrangements are under way for getting it publicity. I’m sending the text of the letter to everyone who contacted me about potentially signing up, so if you did, you should get it shortly.
Anyone else (lawyers and law academics) who would consider signing a letter protesting the misrepresentation of the current law of trespass on the issue of squatting by newspapers and Ministers, please email me at email@example.com so that I can send you the text of the letter.
More on this as it develops. In the meantime, the Guardian has a piece by a Squash activist on the topic, although the article misses some of the more egregious misrepresentations.
This may not be the first such announcement, but it is certainly the biggest to date. Birmingham Citizens Advice has had £600,00 per year of Local Authority funding cut. Unless alternative funding of £50,000 per month is found, it will close its generalist advice centres from 11 February 2011.
The CAB claims that they assisted 56,000 people last year and it is the largest CAB in the country. They estimate that they assisted clients in applying for or appeallng decision on income of about £16 million and to manage about £85 million of debt.
Transition funds will not be accessible in time and Birmingham City Council ‘replacement’ funds – a much smaller pot open to bids from 14 charities, to be allocated in £50,000 blocks over 1 to 3 years – will not be available in any event until August 2011.
The CAB are urgently asking for donations to fund them in the short term while they attempt to secure longer term funds.
My understanding is that the Social Welfare law contract (joint with Shelter) and the ‘preventing homelessness’ advice at the County Court (not the duty scheme as first suggested – that is run by CLP) are not directly affected. However, there are surely intertwined economics of provision even if just in terms of office space, admin support and facilities.
Birmingham Council, a ConDem coalition, appear to be blithely ignoring the DCLG recommendations that Councils should not take the easy option and cut funding to the voluntary sector. One takes it that Grant Shapps and Eric Pickles will be very disappointed in Brum (but take no action at all).
[Update: Birmingham City Council respond that
"We’ve always made it clear to agencies that funding was not guaranteed beyond any single year, up to a maximum of three years. It was never our intention for agencies to become dependent upon this source of funding, or that it form their sole source of income. However, we did pay CAB £150,000 notice payment".
That first sentence has the dubious distinction of making no sense whatsoever. On 'dependency', the CAB point out that the £600,000 was 20% of their funding, but that they can't afford to lose 20% when funding from other sources is also dropping by £1.2 million for 2011. The income was £3 milion in 2009/10.]
I’d like to extend publicly a long overdue thanks to the contributors who have helped establish the initial authored Housing Law content on FreeLegalWeb:
- To the pseudonymous Nearly Legal for helping develop the authoring system and to him and his team for providing a steady stream of case notes and articles selected from Nearly Legal. The authoring team are NL himself, Chief, Dave, David Smith, J and Francis Davey. Francis was also a key player in the gestation of FreeLegalWeb.
- To William Flack for his help developing FreeLegalWeb and for providing a number of introductory guides – which he is now developing on his Social Welfare Law Wiki.
- To Tessa Shepperson for providing a selection of excellent articles, case notes and reviews from her Landlord-Law Blog.
- To Stephen Moore of CaseCheck for generously making available for our publication the entire CaseCheck case summaries archive (only the property and landlord and tenant categories are currently used).
- To Jamal Demachkie for providing materials from the Housing Law website.
We are also establishing a channel from the PainSmith Landlord and Tenant Blog (thanks to David Smith).
Housing Law is the focus of our Pilot site, but we welcome contributions from across all areas of law. If you write about the law, please share your expertise on FreeLegalWeb.