Kenneth Clarke has promised to make squatting a thing of the past by making it a criminal offence in England and Wales and therefore abolishing the concept of 'squatter's rights' in the process.
At present squatting, that is taking possession of another person's real estate property without permission and living in it, is not a criminal offence. It is therefore 'unlawful' as opposed to 'illegal'. But only if the squatters gained entry without causing damage and it did not lead to either a 'displaced residential occupier' or 'protected intending occupier'.
This means that squatters can enter and occupy an empty premises. But when you go on holiday accidentally leaving a window open and return to find the locks changed and squatters occupying your house you can call the police to deal with the problem.
The law preventing the threats and/or use of violence to enter a property also do not apply to displaced residential occupiers and protected intending occupiers. But owner/occupiers of commercial properties and owners of abandoned or otherwise empty property cannot force their way back in if someone inside opposes their entry.
Squatter's rights are therefore quite limited. But it had resulted in a plethora of sites on the internet like squatter.org.uk that takes potential squatters through the rules.
In some cases long term squatting has led to 'adverse possession' of an abandoned property. A situation where squatters have moved in without damaging it and with the intent to take full possession without the legal owner trying to enforce their rights over the property for ten years (registered property) or twelve years (unregistered property). Adverse possession means that the original owner could lose their right to the property and the squatter becomes the 'owner'.
High profile victims of squatters are film director Guy Ritchie, art dealer and BBC Antiques Roadshow valuer Peter Nahum, businessman John Hamilton-Brown and even David Blunkett's former central London grace and favour home.
Just last week an Â£11 million mansion owned by Saif Gaddafi, Colonel Gaddafi's son, was entered and occupied by serial squatters calling themselves 'Topple the Tyrants'.
Under the new rules every case of squatting would be a criminal offence and the police could be called to attend and deal with them all. And squatters could end up with a prison sentence just as in Scotland where it is already a criminal offence and carries a possible sentence of 21 days in jail.
In the case of Saif Gaddafi's London property one wonders whether he will ever get round to enforcing his rights or whether it will become a frozen asset.
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