Section 144 of LASPO may prove unenforceable in practice
Resistance to s.144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) 2012 that outlaws squatting in residential buildings is growing. Ultimately, the law may prove unworkable and unenforceable. There have been a number of successful prosecutions under the new law, including the widely publicised conviction and imprisonment of 21 year old Alex Haigh who came to London looking for work and stayed in an unoccupied housing association flat. He pleaded guilty, but it has since become clear that where a not guilty plea is entered by defendant, it may be difficult if not impossible for the prosecution to prove the charge. After some notable acquittals, we have a better idea about the obstacles facing hapless prosecutors and some of the ways in which well-informed residential squatters might go about successfully defending themselves in court. Read on.
On the newswire: Brighton acquittals 1 | Brighton acquittals 2 | Moelfre acquittal | Squatting as protest in Southwark | Mike Weatherley is a coward case | Alex Haigh conviction | Henry: Bristol's first victim of squatting criminalisation
Other links: Squatters Legal Network | Advisory Service for Squatters | Rooftop Resistance | SQUASH
Background to s.144Section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) became law on September 1, 2012. In brief, it is now a criminal offence if a person is inside a residential building as a trespasser and living or intending to live there. Yet "living" is hard to prove, as the cases below demonstrate. Just as activist groups such as SQUASH were warning all along, the new law is now falling apart under legal scrutiny. This is fantastic; it should not be a crime to occupy unused or derelict space.
Some early prosecutions ended in conviction
Unfortunately, there have already been successful prosecutions and at least two people have been sent to prison. It is hard to track figures countrywide, but Alex Haigh is regarded to have been the first person to be convicted, after being arrested in a squat in Pimlico, London. He was sentenced to 12 weeks in jail. Henry from Bristol was also an early casualty of the new law.
A homeless Polish man was accosted by police who broke into a derelict house to tell him to leave. When he went back to sleep instead, they came back and arrested him.
Despite pubs specifically being excluded from section 144 in the Government's own guidance, two people were convicted in Romford last year of squatting a flat in a pub, although it is unclear whether they actually served time in the end.
There are no doubt other cases elsewhere, which groups such as the Squatters Legal Network are trying hard to follow.
Also for example, there was the case of the Spanish squatters in London who changed their plea from not guilty to guilty (they didn't get prison sentences, but it seems they received bad legal advice).
Of course, the new law is also being used a lot by police to intimidate people into leaving squats and it seems quite common for people to be arrested and not charged (by which time their house has been boarded up again). However, section 144 is now being challenged by people who are refusing to plead guilty...
Brighton Three go free
In Brighton, three squatters were arrested in a raid two days after the law changed. In what was seen as a test case for the police, they were charged with the new offence of squatting, as well as obstruction and abstraction (of electricity). Two squatters had all charges dropped, the other was convicted on the word of a copper. On appeal in October 2013, this conviction was also thrown out, since the Judge and two magistrates agreed that there was absolutely no proof that the squatters were actually living there. There is some analysis of the court case here.
The judge refused to comment on the second defence argument, namely that the building, despite being defined as residential by both the property management company and the police, had actually never been converted to residential.
Acquittal in Moelfre case
Tristan Dixon was accused of squatting a derelict house in Moelfre, Powys where he had planned to cultivate the abandoned land rather than reside. He was convicted under section 144 at Welshpool magistrates court with the help of a crap solicitor and subsequently appealed the conviction. Having filed a motion to have the initial charges quashed, he was then informed that the CPS would not be contesting the appeal, but Tristan wanted the case to be heard so that the legal issues could be aired in court and properly considered. At Mold Crown Court on 6 November, Judge Rowlands threatened Tristan with the possibility of exorbitant legal costs if he insisted on the case going ahead, so in the end he settled for an acquittal. A protest against homelessness and in support of squatting was held outside the Crown and County Court building where at least ten repossession cases were being heard that day.
Some of the issues over the original conviction were that the charge was ill-founded, failing to address knowledge of trespassing and charging Tristan with 'living' or 'intending to live' in the property without specifying any period of time, as well as conflating these two alleged offences ('living' and 'intending to live') into one, creating what was in effect an uncertain charge.
Southwark Protest Squat
The occupation of two Council houses in Southwark to prevent their sell-off for profit justifiably gathered a lot of media attention. But it also highlighted another way to attack s.144, which is to squat something as a protest rather than for living. This seems to have gone very well in this case so far, with the police not threatening to evict, despite the houses clearly being residential.See also Housing Action Southwark & Lambeth.
As the squatters say,
"we hope that our protest shows that the law to criminalise squatting in residential buildings (section 144) should not apply to protest occupations such as ours and that empty residential buildings should still be used for such acts."
Mike Weatherley is a coward case
As an amusing sidenote, the trial of the person charged under Section 4a of the Public Order Act (for calling Mike Weatherley a coward!) continued on November 11 at Brighton Magistrates Court. Weatherley and his cronies appear to want to scapegoat someone as revenge for getting chased off the University of Sussex campus by a large group of people last year.
Whilst they appear to be building a case of affray, the Crown must prove that the defendant caused alarm, distress or harassment to Weatherley and it seems unlikely they will be able to. At the hearing on 11 November, a submission to dismiss the case was made, but this was refused by the Judge and the case will continue on 12 November. Follow @housingwar on twitter for updates.
Practical advice for squatters
So it seems clear that people arrested under s.144 should not talk to the police except to give a no comment interview and should not plead guilty to the offence. The examples mentioned above show that it is difficult to prove that a squatter is "living or intending to live" in a squat without a major surveillance operation. This already makes the law unenforceable. Add to that arguments about the squat being a protest rather than residential, or perhaps a dispute over whether the specific building in question is even legally adapted as residential, and it seems clear that s.144 is unworkable in practice. On top of that, the huge expense that the police will have to go to, with forensic analysis of food and mattresses, door-to-door interviews with neighbours and observation of the squat, makes the law unaffordable! The "crime" of squatting residential buildings will continue!