Commercial property law expert Melissa Thompson of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that she was not surprised by press reports indicating that cases of squatting in commercial property had increased since the law changed in September. She called on the Government to extend the changes to commercial properties.
"This latest trend is no surprise," she said. "It is the inevitable consequence of the criminalisation of squatting in residential buildings, which many squatters will now treat as off-limits. The financial consequences of squatting and the interruption that it causes to businesses are significant. It is time for the Government to turn its attention to commercial properties and make it a criminal offence to squat in these too."
Squatting in residential buildings became a criminal offence in England and Wales on 1 September. The offence is committed where a person in a residential building as a trespasser, having entered as trespasser, knows or ought to know that he or she is trespassing and is living in the building or intends to live there for any period. Individuals could face up to six months in prison and a £5,000 fine if found guilty of the offence.
However, squatting in commercial and other non-residential buildings has not been criminalised. Property owners must instead pursue civil procedures or take action relating to existing criminal offences such as those in relation to damage to private property, to have squatters removed.
Squatters have been quick to capitalise on the change in the law, according to a report in the Financial Times, with one commercial property lawyer telling the paper he had seen a 100% increase in inquiries since the law was changed two months ago. Websites such as the Advisory Service for Squatters have updated information they publish to point out that commercial properties, such as pubs, are not covered by the new law.
One of the most high profile recent commercial property squatting cases involves the 300-year-old Cross Keys pub in London's affluent Chelsea area, which was taken over by a group of squatters last month. The group, which moved in after the local planning authority refused the owner permission to turn the property into a £10 million residence with a basement swimming pool, told the Evening Standard that they intended to maintain the property as a "community foundation". They moved in after being evicted from a previous squat in Holborn, according to the paper.
Justice Minister Damian Green said that the new offence covered squatting in residential buildings because "that is what the public were most concerned about". The Government decided against criminalising squatting in commercial and other non-residential properties following a consultation last year.
"We recognise that squatting can also have a serious impact on commercial property owners and we will continue to monitor this situation closely," Green said in a statement.
"Squatters have been playing the justice system and causing homeowners untold misery in eviction, repair and clean-up costs. It will not be tolerated. Our new criminal offence of squatting in a residential building is enabling the police and other agencies to take quick and decisive action to protect homeowners," he added.