Friday, 17 February 2012

Benny & the Cop

A few years ago Benny called us up to tell us that his landlord had turned up with the police to put him onto the street. As you may imagine, he was quite upset. As it was six o'clock on a Friday, I was quite upset. I rescheduled the appointment with my pint by a few hours.

Benny lived in a house in multiple occupation. That is to say, a number of residents rent bedrooms but share facilities like kitchen and bathroom. Sometimes these are four bedroom flats, sometimes vertical Victorian buildings that once were respectable homes for a middle class family with three or more servants. Sometimes the residents are families squeezed cheek by jowl, sometimes youngsters trying to hack it.

Each case is a snap-shot of people living on the margins in expensive London.

In Benny's case the landlord had turfed out one of the tenants by means unknown, and moved a relative 's possessions into the property. He's trying to get around the protection from eviction legislation by pretending that his family was living there all along, and just taking lodgers.

Thus, he would avoid going to Court . He would give reasonable oral notice and then put his lodgers onto the street.

I ask Benny to give his mobile phone to the Constable, and I ask him whether he is confident that an illegal eviction isn't occurring, which is an offence by the way, and I have some papers which make me worried.

The Constable tells me he's just here to keep the peace, and that he's not trained to assess civil disputes. The landlord goes away and eventually gets a proper order, and Benny has to leave.

So far so dull. What worries me is this.

Although the Police have ample powers today to bust the fake tenants who sport forged tenancy agreements and trash the landlord's possessions in the back garden, they choose not to. They wisely accept that they are not trained in civil law. Or they lazily prioritise drug smugglers and and gang killings. You take your pick.

The LASPO Bill will criminalise squatting. At this point the Police will have to arrest Benny, unless he has a lawyer conveniently at the end of a phone. And the Police will then in many cases assist illegal evictions. Which is an offence.

With evictions climbing as Housing Benefit caps start to bite in posh boroughs like Westminster, and in less posh boroughs like Hackney, I ask myself this question. Is it cheaper to criminalise alleged squatters, and force the CPS to learn housing law, or is it better to allow charities and other legal aid firms fight it out in the civil courts?

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