ShelterUpdated: October 29th, 2019Created: October 29th, 2019
Is it OK if someone resides, for years, on a public bench?
Gary Rycroft, a solicitor put forward by the Law Society, says it's a clear trespass. "Trespass will arise wherever there is a landowner whose land is being occupied by an unauthorised party." But can a bench on a public pavement be seen as somebody's property? "There will always be a landowner. If a bench has been placed on the land then whoever did that must feel they have the right to do it. Land which the public have a right to access may be owned by the local authority or may be part of the public highway."
Shelter disagrees. Their legal adviser says it is "not either a criminal offence or a breach of the civil law (not even a trespass) to move your belongings and family on to a park bench, or indeed to pitch a tent in the high street or outside the Council offices - unless there is a local by-law which makes it unlawful". Wandsworth Council later informs me it has no by-law to prevent people sleeping on a bench. The usual offences used to justify moving rough sleepers on are begging, anti-social behaviour or blocking the public highway. None of these apply here.
However, look hard enough and the authorities always seem to find a way, Shelter says. The Vagrancy Act 1824, which refers to "vagabonds and rogues", prohibits someone from "wandering abroad and lodging in any barn or outhouse, or in any deserted or unoccupied building, or in the open air, or under a tent, or in any cart or wagon, and not giving a good account of himself". And the legal niceties don't always matter: "The police will often just insist on people 'moving on' because they have been asked by the local authority to clear the street, but without quoting any specific piece of legislation. Naturally (and wisely), people usually don't ask under what legal provision the police officer is asking them to move." To do so could be interpreted as a breach of the peace or obstructing a police officer, the Shelter expert says.