Squatters face six months' jail

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Legal Affairs Correspondent

New tougher laws against squatters, promising faster evictions and threatening people with prison if they refuse to move out, take effect today.

The changes come two years after Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, told the Conservative Party conference: "Squatting can never be justified. There can be no excuse for seizing someone else's property for however short a time."

Under a new fast-track legal procedure, owners of illegally- occupied properties should receive a hearing three days after applying to a county court .

If the case is uncontested, the judge will grant an interim possession order. Squatters then have 24 hours to leave and face up to six months' jail and fines of up to pounds 5,000 if they stay.

There are an estimated 60,000 squatters in Britain, most of them in local authority properties. Each year about 10,000 people seek expulsions through the civil courts, which can be time-consuming and costly.

The new court procedures, introduced under the 1994 Criminal Justice Act, cannot be used against most long-standing squatters. The owner needs to have become aware of the squat within only the preceding four weeks.

Mike Turner, of the voluntary Advisory Service for Squatters, said speedy evictions would make it more likely that squatters became homeless because they would have no time to find other accommodation. He said it would be hard for them to contest interim orders once they had nowhere to live.

The changes are likely to be seen as a climbdown by hard-liners on law and order in the Conservative Party. The Home Office originally hoped to make squatting itself a criminal rather than civil offence, and could not say yesterday why it had backed off. It also planned to give bailiffs the right to break down front doors to repossess properties but this, too, has been dropped.