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Criminal Law: Squatters criminalised, homeowners given stronger self-defence rights

Squatters are to be criminalised and homeowners will be given stronger rights of self-defence against intruders in new amendments to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment Bill announced by Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke yesterday (26 October).

The amendments will be discussed in the Commons next week; this is the first step in the process of a Government Bill entering into UK law.

Squatting is currently a civil offence but Mr Clarke intends to make it a criminal offence to squat in residential premises because "far too many people endure the misery, expense and incredible hassle of removing squatters from their property."

The plans follow a number of cases of squatting recently in London. One incident involved Dr Oliver Cockerell and his pregnant wife finding 11 squatters in their £1 million North London home, just days before they were due to move in.

Mr Clarke said: "This new offence will ensure the law is firmly on the side of the homeowner so that quick and decisive action can be taken."

Critics of the Bill, including homelessness charities such as Crisis, fear that criminalising squatting will harm the most vulnerable people: those who suffer from alcohol and drug problems, learning disabilities and mental illness.

Crisis chief executive Leslie Morphy said: "They squat out of necessity, not choice, in atrocious conditions where they are least likely to be disturbed. These are people that need help - not a year behind bars and a £5,000 fine."

As well as being able to turf out unwelcome guests, the amendments will also permit homeowners to protect themselves against intruders and will no longer place a legal duty on them to retreat from an intruder.

Mr Clarke explained: "While fleeing is usually the safest option if you feel threatened, people are not obliged to retreat when defending themselves or their homes.

"We will ensure that if you do react instinctively to repel an intruder, you will not be punished for it as long as you use reasonable force."

The plans to improve the law on self-defence have been long in the making. In 1999, a Norfolk farmer shot dead a burglar in his home and was convicted of manslaughter. MPs have been campaigning ever since to clarify the law.

Related links:
Read more on the story (The Guardian)
Read 'Self-defence or violent crime?' (FindLaw)
Find local criminal solicitors throughout the UK (FindLaw)