Posted by: aboutalbion | September 3, 2012

The law on squatting changes

In previous posts, I have written in uncritical terms about the advantages of “the rule of law” nation state.  However, a change in the law in England and Wales over this past weekend gives me the opportunity to mention a critical point about “the rule of law”.

It is usual to begin to explain the concept of “the rule of law” as everyone is equal before the law.  This brings into focus the adversarial nature of legal proceedings, and the way that dispute resolution emphasises the centrality of the individual defendant.

Wade Mansell et al write: “[T]his ideological perception of individual separateness affects other perceptions and, in particular, when we discussed property, we found that the idea of absolute rights over land or things also reflected and reinforced the notion of separateness.  In our society, men and women of property have no obligations to men and women of poverty, and charity, though it might receive approval, is not obligatory; the poor enjoy no rights, by reason of that status, against the rich.” (p113)

What Mansell et al are highlighting here is that our modern emphasis on individuality (enshrined in “the rule of law”) is a long way from the narrative of evolutionary biologists that suggests that human beings are fundamentally herd (social) animals, who have an interdependent common future.

Over the weekend, the rights of residential property owners in England and Wales have been strengthened in relation to squatters.  It is now a criminal offence to squat in an empty residential property, after knowingly entering the property as a trespasser with the intention to live there.  The maximum sanctions available to the courts are a fine of £5000 and/or six months in prison.

Some estimates put the number of empty “homes” in the UK at around a million.  The estimates of the number of squatters seems to be around 25,000 (most of whom are in London).

This change in the law illustrates a disadvantage a “the rule of law” nation state in which the right to private property is virtually absolute.  To deliberately criminalize a vulnerable person who does not have the financial resources to access any form of residential property exhibits the socially divisive power of the law.  To date, I haven’t heard of any initiative to address the potential surge in demand for already scarce social housing.

[Wade, Meteyard & Thomson (2004) A Critical Introduction to Law (Third Edition).  London: Cavendish.]


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