Irene Gardiner bringing case against Crown Prosecution Service and police over law change that could make her homeless
A woman who has lived in an abandoned Welsh hillside cottage for 11 years is to challenge legislation that criminalises squatting.
Irene Gardiner, 49, raised her family in the 500-year-old timber and stone house at Newchapel, near Llanidloes, Powys.
Backed by lawyers in London, Gardiner is bringing a test case against the police and Crown Prosecution Service seeking assurances she will not be thrown out of the home she has inhabited since 2001.
Her cottage, which has no electricity or running water, has been occupied by squatters for several decades.
Last year Gardiner, who works as a puppeteer, jeweller and for circuses, tried to claim lawful possession of the property but her application failed.
The legislation comes into force on Saturday and exposes her and her children to the immediate threat of prosecution. Under section 144 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, squatting in residential premises becomes punishable by up to six months’ jail and fines up to £5,000 in England and Wales.
Like thousands of other squatters, she has been making last minute preparations in case there is a police raid – moving possessions to friends’ homes.
A significant proportion of the UK’s estimated 20,000 squatters face a similar risk of criminal charges and removal from their temporary accommodation.
The charity Crisis warned there could be a dramatic increase in street homelessness if police carry out a blitz on squats.
Two of Gardiner’s children, Hazel, 15, and Sol, 13, live with her and attend local schools. She pays her council tax.
“The property was vacant and abandoned when I moved in,” she said.
“No one had title to it. I had been travelling around Europe in a bus and when I came back I had nowhere to live.
“Squatters who had stayed here suggested I move in. I’ve been here ever since, using candles and a generator.
“I’m self-employed and have never claimed housing benefit. I must have saved the government a fortune.
“I’m worried about what might happen now. I don’t know how the police will apply the new law. I feel like it’s my duty to take a test case. I have been squatting since I was 14. I have bought up four children.
“I have never left anywhere in a mess, never annoyed anybody. There’s never been a problem. I would never squat in someone else’s house. This law could make thousands of people homeless.”
Gardiner’s case is supported by the law firm Leigh Day & Co. The claim, to be lodged in the high court in London next week, alleges prosecution would breach her rights to personal and family life under Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights.
Ugo Hayter, of Leigh Day & Co, said: “This legislation will have impacts on the most vulnerable people in society, and will be a further burden on already strained public services.”
He added: “There is existing criminal and civil law which enables property owners to swiftly evict squatters.
“Homeowners will derive no further protection from this new legislation. It will simply criminalise the homeless.”
Rosa Curling, a solicitor with the law firm, added: “Ms Gardiner’s circumstances are such that the application of Section 144 of the Act is totally disproportionate to the aim being pursued by the Secretary of State for Justice in introducing this piece of legislation.”
There are an estimated 720,000 empty residential properties in the UK. A report by Squatters Action for Secure Homes (Squash) claimed criminalising squatting could cost the government up to £790m over the next five years.
But the justice minister Crispin Blunt told the BBC: “We are spending £400m [over the next four years] on the homeless. Homelessness is at a 28-year low.
“We have a proper strategy for the homeless … that needs to sit alongside this measure, but this measure is about justice and fairness for homeowners who shouldn’t have their homes stolen by squatters.”
The shadow justice minister Andy Slaughter said: “The distress squatters can cause to families, as well as the financial damage they do, is completely unacceptable.”
David Salusbury, chairman of the National Landlords Association (NLA), said he was not convinced the law would have any discernible effect.
“The NLA would like to see landlords being able to automatically regain lawful possession,” he said.
“This new legislation will require the police to determine ‘reasonable suspicion’ in order to move quickly and remove a squatter.”