The offence of ‘squatting in a residential building’ has been in force since 1st September 2012 and our professional involvement in a current prosecution causes us to ask: what is the price of prosecuting the homeless?
Before implementing this law there existed numerous civil and criminal law powers to assist landlords or tenants to seek possession from squatters. This new power certainly simplifies the process for them but at what cost and to whom?
A prosecution in North West London has seen 5 homeless men arrested and prosecuted for such an offence in a building which was formerly a commercial property but had been left derelict for 2 years. It seems it was acquired by residential property developers but the development has yet to begin. The 5 men would have been arrested by a team of police officers. Usual practice is to ensure there are 2 officers for every detained person. That means a team of 10 officers may have been involved in the arrest phase.
These men were then detained at a local police station for interview. We say that on average suspects are detained for 8 hours before charge or release that is around 40 hours of detention time. 5 cells used up, involving custody sergeants, constables and gaolers. All suspects with illnesses or injuries must be reviewed and treated by medical professionals while at the police station. The 5 men were likely to have been interviewed by a team of between 4 to 6 officers trained to lead investigations. They would have been supervised by a team sergeant and a charging decision would have been sought from an on-call CPS solicitor.
Then there are the court costs. All five men spent a full day at a local magistrates’ court for the first plea hearing. They pleaded not guilty on the basis that it was not a residential building and in any event they believed they had been granted a licence to occupy the building. They had not forced entry or committed damage but had in fact improved the fittings while present.
They must now wait several months for a 1 ½ day trial in front of a salaried District Judge. They all require interpreters and some may qualify for legal aid (as this offence carries the threat of imprisonment).
The National Audit Office recently confirmed that the cost to the court service for a summary trial is, on average, £1,150 per defendant. If this were an average case the cost would be £5,750. But the average trial is normally around 2 -3 hours and not 1 ½ days. And because of the need to use a professional judge (instead of the voluntary justices of the peace), plus interpreters, the cost is likely to be far higher in this case. That does not take account of the CPS costs (said to be around £620 for the average summary trial for 1 defendant) as well as the police officers who must attend the trial.
It is worth remembering that at no stage were these men asked to leave prior to their arrest. No civil proceedings had been initiated. No notices seeking possession were given to them.
These men may yet be acquitted but if they are convicted what will the court do with them? It is unlikely they would imprison them (adding yet more cost to the tax-payer) for what is low-level criminality by the desperate and needy. Without a permanent residence these men are unlikely to comply with ‘community service’ orders nor could they afford to pay fines. If the prosecution seek wasted costs from them they are rarely enforced against people without a fixed address. These men would be left with criminal convictions, some have no prior convictions, and this is likely to hinder their chances of securing employment. Prolonged unemployed will in turn make it less likely they can afford to rent and increases the risk of further squatting.
The beneficiary of this prosecution is the property developer who finds it easier to secure possession of the derelict building with this new law. But at a time when public services are being cut would it not be better to have them simply ask for possession before bringing about the force, and great cost, of a state prosecution?
Powell Spencer & Partners