[Alan] began squatting a few months ago when his marriage broke down. He enquired about social housing, but was told none was available. “I was born in London and have lived here all my life but it seems I’m expected to go somewhere else where I know nobody,” he says. “Is that what the big society is all about?”
His timing could not have been worse. From Saturday Alan and up to 20,000 other squatters in England and Wales face eviction as police prepare to enforce a radical change to the law which criminalises those occupying residential buildings. Ministers are calling it the “end of squatters’ rights” and the first guaranteed protection for home owners.
For 667 years, between 1166 and 1833, a far better remedy was available to property owners in England. It was called the Assize of Novel Disseisin and was a far more humane and proportionate response to the wrongful occupation of property than criminalisation.
King Henry I of England died in 1135 without an immediate male heir (his son had been drowned in the wreck of the White Ship in 1120). His daughter Matilda and another of William the Conqueror’s grandchildren, Stephen, both felt they had a claim. Stephen acted quickly, travelled to London and had himself crowned. Matilda then invaded and most of Stephen’s reign was disfigured by the ensuing civil war, during which many land holdings were appropriated, and re-appropriated, by force in the absence of legitimate civil authority.
When Henry II came to the throne in 1154, disputes over land holdings were one of his biggest domestic problems. The modern English legal system has evolved from the steps he took to deal with the crisis. King’s Justices, travelling the country holding courts to hear disputes about land tenure, called together juries of local worthies who could adjudicate based on their local knowledge and memories of who had held which pieces of land under Henry I, whose reign was taken as the reference point. In effect, Stephen was written out of history; any grants he had made were undone.
Henry also introduced two ‘Assizes’, or legal processes that could be called on where there were certain types of disputes over land occupation. Mort d’ancestor was aimed at situations where someone had been deprived of an inheritance, typically when the inheritor had been of minority age at the time of their relative’s death. Novel Disseisin dealt with what we now call squatting.
Obviously, that’s an anachronistic way to put it, but it would have dealt very well with squatting. If you felt your property was unlawfully occupied by other people, you could apply to the Sheriff for a writ of Novel Disseisin. In doing so, you would have had to prove that in the recent past you occupied the property yourself. If that could be shown, the Sheriff would issue the writ and the occupiers of the property would have had to leave immediately.
The point of this was not to circumvent proper legal process. The writ didn’t affect anyone’s rights. The ‘squatters’ could take the restored occupiers of the disputed property to court and show they had a rightful claim, if they did. All it affected was who was in possession of the property while this was being resolved.
The tactic of many squatters, especially the most cynical or openly abusive, is to occupy the property while the dispute is heard. When they lose, having caused great expense and distress to the property owner, they move on.
Novel Disseisin would have stopped this strategy working, without criminalising anyone and without infringing anyone’s rights.
The medieval approach was better than the modern, which ought to be a sobering thought.
UPDATE: On Twitter, JuliaM asked: “We criminalise other thieves, don’t we? Why not squatters? Why should they get a parallel legal system?” Since that’s a question a lot of people would feel warranted, I’ll answer it here.
Squatting is done by some of the most vulnerable people in society as well as some of the most predatory. Runaways squat, for example. While I do want the owners of property to have recourse to very fast and cheap restoration, I don’t want to see the vulnerable criminalised. This is especially true with the increased importance and use of Criminal Record Office checks by employers, which seem designed to make sure that offenders have no legitimate alternative to crime.
The writ of Novel Disseisin allowed property owners to get their properties back immediately, without expensive process, and also without criminalising the squatters unless some other crime is committed, like theft of furniture or damage. It would not prevent criminal proceedings if there were other crimes. I think that provides the best solution to the problem. It mixes effectiveness with compassion.