2 St Pauls Road, London N1 2QN Tel: 020 7359 8814
If you listen to the ramblings of politicians or the tabloid
press, there is a fair chance that may believe squatting in England
and Wales to be illegal. This is most definitely not the case.
Squatting is not a crime, and if anyone says it is, they are wrong!
With a few exceptions, if you can get into an empty building without
doing any damage and can secure it, you can make it your home.
The 1994 Criminal Justice & Public Order Act has made some
changes to the laws about squatting but it is still as legal as
it is necessary. Always remember that squatting is unlawful, not
illegal which means that it is a civil dispute, dealt with by
a civil court; and the police have nothing to do with civil disputes.
You will almost certainly be evicted eventually, perhaps very
quickly, but you have the same rights as other householders; the
right to privacy, rubbish collection, postal delivery, social
security and essential services like water and electricity. Many
squats last only a time but if you choose your place carefully,
you may be able to stay for years. Choosing carefully usually
means taking time to gather information. You could quite easily
open the first empty building that you come across, but the chances
are that you would not stay there forever. Opening a new squat
is always a bit of a gamble but the more you know the better your
odds. Read on!
FINDING A PLACE
All property is owned by someone and it is a good to find out
who that someone is before breaking a new place. Some types of
landlord are far easier to deal with than others, so here are
a few tips on what to expect from various landlords:
Council Property: In the past the best places to squat
have been local authority owned properties that are not going
to be re-let. This is for a number of reasons. Councils have a
lot of empty properties and often do not have the money
to keep them in a lettable state. Often quite reasonable properties
are left empty because of mismanagement, bureaucracy or low demand
on hard to let estates (as people do not want to move to them).
If there are a lot of squatters the council will take longer to
evict people. Some councils or individual employees may be unofficially
sympathetic to squatters and leave eviction until the properties
are required. Also, councils do have some duties to house people
and these duties can sometimes be used as legal defences in possession
proceedings. Be warned, though, that recently more and more Councils
have become more hard line in their attitudes towards squatters,
and in fact any-one living in council property; and the incidences
of false PIOs, illegal or heavy-handed evictions and trashing
property have increased. Council properties will either be letting
stock, (i.e. properties fit to be let), hard to let or awaiting
renovation, demolition or sale.
Housing Associations/Trusts: These are government and
or charitably funded housing organisations. They also have large
numbers of empty properties and some are quite reasonable in their
attitude to squatters. Others can be particularly stupid - and
nasty. The different categories of Housing Association property
are basically the same as Council property.
Other Large Organisations. Many government departments
and newly privatised quangos own lots of empty properties. These
include the MOD, the police and railway companies, as well as
hospitals and schools.
Mortgage Repossessions: These are places owned by banks
or building societies, and are an attractive option simply because
there are huge numbers of them. As long as the previous owners
have been evicted, the owners will have to take you to court.
Commercial Property: Private landlords and property companies
are always the most unpredictable type of owner - they could send
in the heavies or ignore you for years. They are the type of owner
most likely to evict you if you leave the place empty. In the
past few years many pubs have been closed and left empty for years,
and have sometimes been successfully squatted.
Private Houses: Empty houses with 'For Sale' signs outside
are not a good option. If an owner has recently moved out, it
is quite likely that someone else is about to move in. A new private
owner is able to use the PlO provisions of Section 7, and is highly
likely to do so. Best avoided.
The most difficult part of squatting is actually gaining possession.
Squatters are sometimes arrested for Criminal Damage, which, taken
in it's strictest possible form, is an offence which almost all
squatters commit. Removing steel doors, boards, damaging the front
door, even taking out broken parts of a house can be considered
Criminal Damage. But don't get paranoid! Only a very small minority
of squatters ever get nicked - and with good legal advice they
often get off. The greatest time of risk is when you have just
moved in - the police are bound to come nosing around and may
accuse you of having smashed windows, etc. If any damage has been
done, make sure it's repaired immediately.
Opening a squat by yourself can be risky - it's safer and more
fun to do it with others. Most forcible evictions happen in the
first few days, so make sure there's a group of you who open up
the squat and are ready to move in at once. If the police want
to charge you with criminal damage, they'll have to sort out who
actually did it. Provided no one is caught red-handed or makes
any stupid statements, they will obviously have a difficult time
deciding who to charge. The first thing to do once you're in is
to change the lock on the front door and secure all the entrances.
Until you have control over who comes in and out, you do not have
possession and can be evicted straight away if the owner or police
turn up. Remember secure all windows and skylights. Putting up
a legal warning (see below) in a front window may be helpful,
as it may deter the police or owner from breaking in, but you
must have someone in the place all the time to back it up. A legal
warning will not stop you being evicted on it's own. Put up curtains
and try to make the place look lived in. Get down to the gas and
electric board quickly - before the owners do. If the services
are on, take a note of the meter readings. If you use gas or electricity
without paying, you can be charged with theft. If you have neighbours,
and enlist their support. Explain why you are homeless - you may
get a surprisingly sympathetic response.
DEALING WITH THE BOYS IN BLUE
It's best to expect a visit from your friendly local plod soon
after you've moved in, as they are bound to turn up sooner or
later. Remember, they have no right of entry without a warrant,
so donít let them in if you can avoid it. Let them know the situation.
Say something like:-
"We have moved in here because we have nowhere else. We did not
break anything when entered and we have not damaged anything since.
It isn't a criminal matter; it's a civil matter between us and
the owners, and they must take us to court for a possession order
if they want us to leave".
Some police act as if they can evict or arrest any squatter they
see. This is not true. Try to talk to them through the letter
box. Make sure you know the legal situation better than they do
(not usually very difficult) and show them a copy of the Legal
Warning. If they simply say "get out, don't be clever", etc you
can point out that they may be committing an offence under section
6 of the Criminal Law Act, because they will be violently entering
premises where there is some opposing their entry.
Unless you are evicted under Section 6 or 7 of the 1977 Criminal
Law Act or the owners have evicted you while you were out, the
owner must apply the courts for a possession order. Any other
method will probably be illegal. Nearly all squats are evicted
after a possession order has been made by a court. The notorious
1994 Criminal Justice & Public Order Act has not actually
changed the position very much. Apart from a few minor changes
to the law about PlOs, it has produced an extra type of possession
order called an INTERIM POSSESSION ORDER (IPO). This can be nasty,
but has turned out to be not nearly so bad as everyone thought
when it was going through parliament. It cannot be used on the
majority of squatters, and so far there have very few IP0s. Most
IP0s which squatters defended have flopped and the owners have
been forced to use the old procedures instead. The important thing
about IP0s is that you get very short notice. You need to take
action THE SAME DAY as you get served with the papers. Get legal
advice straight away.
THE FIRST WARNING
The first warning you get may be someone calling your squat saying
they are the owner or are acting for the owner. Ask to see their
identification and note the name, address and phone number. They
will probably say something like, "'You are trespassing and you
must leave". They may also give you some bullshit about the new
IPO procedure and say that the police could come and arrest you
at any time. Make sure you know the facts about IPOs and don't
get intimidated by this sort of talk. Make a note of everything
you heard and said as soon as they leave. Sign and date it, as
it may be useful evidence if you fight the court case. They will
probably ask for the names of all living in the squat, and there
is no advantage in withholding this information. If you volunteer
a lot of names - particularly in a big squat Ė and they forget
to send summonses to all those people, you may have a defence
in court. You donít have to give your real name, but if you fight
the case and require legal aid, you canít get it in a false name!
Quite often the first warning will be a letter rather than a
visit. It will say the same sort of things and probably that you
must leave by a certain date or else the owner "will take proceedings".
Don't panic about such a letter. It just means the owner has found
out that you're there.
It's quite possible that the first warning you get will be the
summons. A summons is the formal notice of the court hearing,
and you have the right to get one. These are civil courts, not
criminal ones, so you don't have to go if you don't want to. It's
more of an invitation, but one you should think about accepting
if you value your home and want to fight for it. Of course, some
cases are not worth fighting if there is no defence. You may be
better off looking for another place than putting energy into
a court case that will go against you sooner or later. On the
other hand, even technical defences can give you a little more
time and sometimes quite a lot. IP0s should always be opposed
It is beyond the space limitations of this guide, to go into
the details of fighting court cases, and it is recommended that
you get hold of a copy of the Squatters Handbook which contains
stacks of info on every aspect of squatting (details below).
SQUAT NOW WHILE STOCKS LAST!
If you are homeless and have tried all the accepted ways of getting
a home, don't be afraid to take matters into your own hands instead
of letting the system grind you down. Everyone has the right to
a home. If others can squat, so can you. Take control of your
own life instead of being pushed around by bureaucrats and property
owners who are more concerned with money and status than the quality
of people's lives or their happiness.
The Squatters Handbook is published by Advisory Service for Squatters,
2 St Pauls Road, London N1 2QN Tel: 020 7359 8814 www.squat.freeserve.co.uk