Ludicrous land law should be abolished
Published 15/10/2011 | 05:00
WITH hundreds of thousands of new houses and apartments lying empty in ghost estates across Ireland, many people in need of accommodation might be tempted to take up residence in these vacant relics of the Celtic Tiger.
As demonstrated by the case today, they are unlikely to be committing a criminal offence.
This is because, under the Public Order Act 1994, a trespass is only a crime if it is done with the intention of committing another offence, such as burglary, or if the person interferes with property while there, or puts a person in fear by their presence in the house.
This would not seem to be the case if you are simply living in an abandoned building, and not causing any damage to it.
Nevertheless, it is generally a bad idea to rush out and commandeer a property, and claim it as your own. By law, the true owner can use reasonable force to remove you from the premises, and if there is an altercation, the squatter might find themselves in very hot water, facing serious criminal charges.
A more cautious and sensible owner can apply to the courts to have the trespasser evicted in the civil courts.
The squatter would then find himself fixed with paying not only his own legal costs, but also those of the owner, and may end up with a stern telling off from the judge, as well as a hefty bill to contend with. The sheriff would then have the legal power to take possession of the property, with or without the squatter's consent, and could be assisted by the gardai if it is the latter.
Even though abandoned, a squatter is interfering with the property rights of the true owner, be they NAMA, the banks, or a private individual.
Morally, if not legally, a squatter is no better than a thief. Somewhat remarkably, however, Irish law still recognises squatters' rights once they have been resident in a property for a certain period of time, usually 12 years.
If certain criteria are met, the true owner's rights are extinguished and the squatter will effectively take title to the property. This ludicrous law was abolished in Britain recently. With 2,000 ghost estates littering Ireland's haunted landscape, the Government here should quickly do the same.
Neil Maddox is a practising barrister and a lecturer in law at NUI Maynooth