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Squatters are losing the right to claim legal aid to fight landlords and other property owners in court.
A clause in the new Sentencing, Legal Aid and Punishment of Offenders Bill will shut the door on squatters who combat efforts to evict them with free legal advice as the public purse foots the bill. Landlords and property owners will still have to pay their own legal costs.
The proposal is part of a bundle of legal aid reforms aimed at saving more than £2 billion a year.
New research highlights that possession orders in London courts have increased 58% in recent years – from 112 in 2006 to 177 in 2010.
Lawyers Sweet & Maxwell, who commissioned the research, blame rising rental costs, more vacant properties and high unemployment among the young for the rising number of possessions.
Squatting hotspots include Clerkenwell and Shoreditch responsible for 43% of all possession orders issued in London in 2010. They are followed by Mayfair and the West End.
Outer London boroughs accounted for few orders – for instance only five were issued in Bromley.
Current laws let property owners call on the police to help remove squatters but only allows prosecution if a property is damaged.
The new bill has had a second reading in the House of Commons and is expected to hit the statute books later this year.
High profile squatting incidents in London recently included the occupation of film director Guy Richie’s house in Fitzroy Square and then the Black Horse pub in Rathbone Place.
Some housing charities are against the legal aid changes.
The Big Issue Foundation and Crisis have sent a letter to the government pointing out that many squatters are among the poorest and most deprived, with 40% of the homeless turning to squatting at some time.
Many squatters are also alcohol-dependent or suffer from mental illness, the charities wrote.
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