The NLA engages with the powers-that-be on a wide array of issues which impact in one way or another upon a landlords ability to carry out his business. This also means that on occasion we have to look at very emotive issues which carry with them a significant political element.
One of the most important, and emotionally charged debates which the NLA takes part in is that of possession i.e. why, when and how should a landlord be able to legitimately obtain vacant possession of his property and on what basis he may not.
Where tenancies are concerned, we’re quite lucky in the UK. Thanks to decades of hard work by the NLA and others, the statutory frameworks in the British Isles represent a pretty good balance between sufficient security to make the PRS attractive to tenants and adequate protection for landlords’ investment to make letting a viable business. Frustrating and time-consuming as it can be, ending a tenancy in an orderly fashion when things go wrong is possible and (relatively) straightforward.
But…what about when the person occupying your property is not a tenant? What about when there are people living in your property without permission, removing your, extremely valuable, asset from circulation and endangering your business?
This has been the question underpinning a great deal of debate recently as the Government in Westminster decided that the time was right to revisit the issue of squatting in South of the Border.
This is also where the heavily politicised element appears.
The Government demonstrated a belief some months ago that squatting should be criminalised in England and Wales (as it is in Scotland by the way). As is expected of it, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) issued a consultation paper over the summer inviting comment on a number of proposals for dealing with the matter of squatting.
By virtue of their ownership of property, landlords tend to have greater exposure to squatting than most of the population, so you’d expect the NLA to be involved in discussions with Government about this – as we were and continue to be. The NLA was one of more than 2,000 stakeholders to submit comments on the consultation.
The sheer volume of responses led us to believe that it would be some time, possibly the New Year, before a response would be issued by the MoJ. Hence our surprise this week when Secretary of State for Justice Ken Clarke published the following amendments to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill:
To move the following Clause:—
‘(1) A person commits an offence if—
(a) the person is in a residential building as a trespasser having entered it as a trespasser,
(b) the person knows or ought to know that he or she is a trespasser, an
(c) the person is living in the building or intends to live there for any period.
(2) The offence is not committed by a person holding over after the end of a lease or licence (even if the person leaves and re-enters the building).
(3) For the purposes of this section
(a) “building” includes any structure or part of a structure (including a temporary or moveable structure), and
(b) a building is “residential” if it is designed or adapted, before the time of entry, for use as a place to live.
(4) For the purposes of this section the fact that a person derives title from a trespasser, or has the permission of a trespasser, does not prevent the person from being a trespasser.
(5) A person convicted of an offence under this section is liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 51 weeks or a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale (or both)
(6) In relation to an offence committed before the commencement of section 281(5) of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, the reference in subsection (5) to 51 weeks is to be read as a reference to 6 months
(7) For the purposes of subsection (1)(a) it is irrelevant whether the person entered the building as a trespasser before or after the commencement of this section.’.
This creates the offence of squatting – which I am sure many landlords who have suffered at the hands of trespassers in the past will welcome.
The question which still remains though, is how does this move help to regain possession of a property?
If an arrest for suspicion of squatting is made, will a landlord be able to simply take his property back on the presumption of guilt?
As criminal cases tend to take precedence over civil cases will landlords have to wait for the outcome of a prosecution before re-letting property?
The NLA is certainly not opposed to the idea of criminalising squatters – but surely the priority must be returning property to its rightful owners. Crime and punishment can follow once justice has been served.
For more information about squatting and the its potential criminalisation please visit the NLA Website here: http://www.landlords.org.uk/news-campaigns/campaigns/squatting