This week squatters took over a Russian oligarch’s mansion in London’s Belgrave Square, to protest the war in Ukraine. The Metropolitan Police responded to the protest by bringing nine vans of police to the scene, including officers in full riot gear and a cherry picker to reach the balcony of the property, and threatening to arrest the group for residential squatting and burglary.
The protest has now ended, and four people have been arrested. But their action prompted a huge outpouring of support for squatting – so Netpol caught up with the Advisory Service for Squatters to ask, what is the law around occupying the mansions of the super-rich?
What does the law say about squatting mansions for protest?
Squatting means occupying empty buildings, or land, without permission. Normally, it means homeless people finding somewhere to live, for a while at least, but what people do with the space they occupy is up to them. Squatting in non-residential buildings, or where there has been an agreement, is still a civil matter. This means that you shouldn’t normally be arrested or prosecuted for squatting in a non-residential building.
Section 6 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 makes it an offence to force entry to a building which is occupied, and this includes squats. Therefore provided that the squat is properly secured and is physically occupied at all times, the owner isn’t allowed to use violence to break in. Instead they need to apply to court for a possession order which must then be enforced via authorised court enforcement officers.
Although squatting itself is a civil rather than a criminal matter, the police do have powers to break in to protect life and limb and prevent a breach of the peace. The also have powers to break in and exercise powers of arrest where they have reasonable grounds to suspect that a person in the building has committed an offence that can be tried in the crown court; this includes, among other things, theft, criminal damage, dishonestly using electricity without the proper authority and burglary.
Burglary means more than just being in the building without permission; it requires proof of the actual or intended commission of another offence such as theft or causing grievous bodily harm.
What about residential buildings?
Section 144 of the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 makes it a criminal offence to be in a residential building as a trespasser (having entered as a trespasser) to either to live there, or be present with the intention of living there for any period.
The criminal offence therefore does not apply where the people occupying a building neither live their nor have any intention of doing so. In theory, this means that squatting a residential building for the sole purpose of carrying on a protest is not an offence, provided that the occupiers neither live in the building nor intend to do so. However it is possible for a person to be both living in a building and protesting at the same time and so care needs to be taken when planning this type of protest.
Section 144 does not define what it means to ‘live’ in a building – and the phrase is therefore open to interpretation. However tactics which have been employed at protest occupations in the past include keeping bedding to a minimum, and maintaining an ‘occupier’s rota’ to persuade the police that no-one is staying at the property for more than a few hours at a time. Such information is then often attached to the building in the form of a ‘legal warning’.
While these tactics have often been successful, it is important to be aware there have also been occasions where the police have forced entry on the basis that they ‘reasonably suspect’ that people are living in the building.
However, it’s generally rare for this to result in successful prosecutions. If arrested, giving a no comment interview (or providing a pre-prepared statement only if so advised by a solicitor) is particularly important here. It is extremely difficult for the police to prove that a person was living or intending to live in a building unless the person admits that this is what they were doing.
It is interesting to note those arrested were ultimately arrested on suspicion of burglary. While they have been told that they are also being investigated for residential squatting, we assume that the police’s decision to rely on burglary (which is extremely unlikely to stick) is because of perceived difficulties in establishing that the occupiers were living, or intending to live, in the building.
There are plenty more sanctioned mansions out there, and so lots more opportunities to test this out!
If you are considering carrying out a squat related protest you can visit the Advisory Service for Squatters website at Squatter.org.uk, or contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more advice and help in preparing a legal warning.