Another four people have been found “Not Guilty” of the criminal offence introduced in September 2012. They were arrested at a building in Scrutton Street in March. After over six months on bail, their trial took place at Stratford in October.
When the police arrived, the squatters pointed out the “To Let: Commercial” sign outside, and explained that the building had previously been used as offices, and was not a residential building. Despite this, the police forced entry and arrested all four people inside the building. One of them didn’t even live there, and had only come to visit the occupants. They were all taken to the cop shop,and the squat was lost.
The owner had produced a copy of a council tax bill for the top two floors of the building, and this was the main evidence relied on by the Crown Prosecution Service to go ahead with S144 charges against all four.
During the trial, it became clear that the owner had switched to paying a mixture of business rates and (domestic) council tax for the building, rather than continuing to pay business rates for the entire property. Saving themselves a considerable amount of money by tax-dodging. However it also became clear that nobody from the council had ever visited the premises or checked if this was appropriate.
The District Judge heard that the rooms resembled offices, with power and data points in the floor, no curtain rails, no central heating system, no kitchen facilities and no bathroom or shower. The only sink and toilet were in the basement and there was in fact no running water to the top two floors, making a mockery of the suggestion that anybody had lived there in the past. The entire building was open-plan, with no separation between the different parts, no separate entrance, bell or mail-box. The owners said that they had applied for planning consent to convert the top floors to residential use, but no conversion work had taken place.
For a S144 conviction, the building must have been “designed or adapted” for residential use before the trespass, and this was obviously not the case here. In the face of this evidence, the judge was forced to disagree with the CPS, and find the defendants innocent of any crime.
Let’s hope that the four go on to sue the Metropolitan Police for wrongful arrest etc, and receive some financial compensation for losing their home and their liberty in this way.