Lawyers have branded as ‘headline-grabbing’ and unnecessary the introduction of a new criminal offence of squatting, warning that it could harm vulnerable people. But the government is unrepentant, declaring that the move signals the end of ‘squatters’ rights’.

Justice minister Crispin Blunt (pictured) confirmed today that squatting in residential buildings will become a criminal offence for the first time in England and Wales from tomorrow. Squatting in commercial premises will remain a civil matter.

The offence, introduced by section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, will be punishable by a maximum prison term of up to six months, a maximum £5,000 fine, or both.

Blunt said: ‘For too long squatters have had the justice system on the run and caused homeowners untold misery in eviction, repair and clean-up costs. Not any more.

‘Hard-working homeowners need and deserve a justice system where their rights come first – this new offence will ensure the police and other agencies can take quick and decisive action to deal with the misery of squatting.’

Housing minister Grant Shapps said: ‘For too long, hard-working people have faced long legal battles to get their homes back from squatters, and repair bills reaching into the thousands when they finally leave.

‘No longer will there be so-called "squatters' rights". Instead, we’re tipping the scales of justice back in favour of the homeowner and making the law crystal clear: entering a property with the intention of squatting will be a criminal offence.’

The change follows a consultation last summer, which received 2,217 responses, the vast majority of which opposed the change. But the Ministry of Justice said that 1,990 of those responses had been generated by a campaign led by the Squatters Action for Secure Homes.

The Criminal Bar Association and the Law Society strongly opposed the creation of a new criminal offence, arguing that the current law was effective and that unnecessary new regulation should be avoided. However, the Property Litigation Association took the opposite view.

The Law Society argued that squatting was a rare problem and introducing new offences when there was already a range of existing offences would be disproportionate and counterproductive. It also queried whether the police would have the resources to enforce new offences when they appeared to be unwilling to enforce existing laws.

A Law Society spokesperson said: ‘Residential occupiers are already adequately protected from trespass under the Criminal Law Act 1977, and for that reason we, along with the Metropolitan Police, the Magistrates’ Association and many others, did not see the need for the introduction of a new criminal offence for squatting.’

Last September, 160 lawyers signed a letter opposing the change, accusing the government of misrepresenting the law and misleading the public in order to push through its reforms on squatting. They accused ministers of ‘obscuring’ the law and of ‘sensational misrepresentation’ in debates on the subject.

Chair of the Housing Law Practitioners Association, Giles Peaker, who was one of the organisers of the letter, said the change amounted to a ‘tax subsidy’ for landlords who leave their properties unoccupied.

‘They will no longer have to pay to get people evicted; it will be the police’s job to do it, paid for out of the public purse,’ he said.

Peaker said the move was simply ‘headline-grabbing’, as section 7 of the Criminal Law Act 1977 already protects homeowners and makes it a criminal offence for a squatter to remain in a property once asked to leave by the owner.

He said the new law is badly drafted and, unlike the 1977 act, does not cover gardens. ‘People squatting in someone’s garden shed will not be covered,’ he said.

Peaker added that the creation of the offence also runs the risk of criminalising some very vulnerable people. ‘It will mean that homeless people are forced to live in less safe commercial property,’ he said.

But he said the ‘big question’ is whether the police will enforce it.

Responding to the consultation, some local authorities and private providers of social housing supported the proposed change, as did the Residential Landlords Association and the British Property Federation. While the National Landlord Association agreed that the law was inadequate, it did not believe that banning all types of squatting was the right answer.

The Metropolitan Police, responding on behalf of the Association of Chief Police Officers, said that the existing law was broadly adequate.

The Magistrates’ Association was also reluctant to see the change, preferring the option of making any offence contingent upon a refusal to leave on request by the rightful owner.