Now back to the answer for our case…

Answer: Go Directly to Jail

This Property mini-course was based on the case of Southwark v. Williams [1971], 2 All ER 175, wherein the House of Lords decided that the action of entering the empty house was neither excusable nor justified by the defence of necessity. Once you have read the case, try your hand at another round of Westernopoly found on the last page and test your new skills in critical reasoning and learning to "think like a lawyer".


London Borough of Southwark v Williams and another, London Borough of Southwark v Anderson and another


[1971] 2 All ER 175


16 DECEMBER 1970


LORD DENNING MR. This case arises out of the extreme housing shortage in London. In September 1970 some people who were homeless and others who were living in bad conditions sought the assistance of a squatter's association. They made an orderly entry into some empty houses in the Borough of Southwark which were owned by the council. They squatted there. The council applied to the court under the new procedure which has been brought in to deal with urgent cases of squatting. RSC Ord 113 n1 enables the court to make an order for immediate possession. It is a summary procedure and should be used only when there is no arguable defence. The squatters here admit that they have no title to these houses. They admit that the houses belong to the council. But they seek to justify or excuse their action on the ground that ... it was of necessity that they entered the houses.

I would first tell how these houses have become empty. Under the Housing Act 1957 it is the duty of a local authority, such as the Borough of Southwark, to consider the housing conditions in their district. In order to relieve the need, it may provide housing accommodation by building houses, converting others, acquiring houses, pulling them down, or repairing them. This has been done on a large scale in the Borough of Southwark. The council have proclaimed development areas which it means to develop so as to accommodate many more people than have hitherto been there. As and when houses have become empty, it has bought them from their owners. If they are capable of repair at a reasonable cost, the council has repaired them. If they are incapable of repair at a reasonable cost, the council has boarded them up until the time comes when they can be pulled down and new houses erected in their stead. The council has a housing list which it keeps for those in need. There are nearly 9,000 persons on the waiting list now. Nearly half of those are people who are overcrowded and at least one bedroom short. Some have occupants who are ill and sick; and should be moved for health reasons. Others are young couples who have no home of their own. All these are waiting their turn. The council feel that others should not get priority by 'squatting' in the empty houses. Each should take his turn in the queue.




Now let me turn to the squatters themselves. Everyone has the greatest sympathy for them. Two cases are taken as representative. One is the defendant Mr. Peter Williams. He is a married man with two children -- one aged five years living in Deal as boarders in a house; but the landlady died, and they had to leave. They could not find accommodation in Deal at a rent which they felt they could pay. So Mr. Williams brought his family to London in an effort to find somewhere to live. They stayed with friends for a little while, but then they were told to leave. They were desperate, he says. They had not any relatives to assist them. They went in desperation to the housing department. They could not help them. They were forced to walk the streets. They approached the squatters' association. Mr. Peter Williams states what happened:

'On the 7th to 9th days of September, 1970, inclusive, we had no accommodation at all, save that on the 8th day of September, 1970, a stranger allowed us to sleep in her home that night, making it clear that she was unable to help us beyond the one night. My wife and I feared that because of our homeless condition the [council] might take the children and deprive us of them. Consequently, with assistance, on the 10th day of September, 1970, we occupied 32 Harders Road, SE.15, in the Borough aforesaid. I do not like the idea of squatting, but it was literally the only way out for us. On the 10th September, 1970, we moved into 32 Harders Road which was boarded up with sheets of tin, and the windows broken. We took down the tins and mended the windows. This house is in a redevelopment area and there are dozens more houses in the neighbouring roads which are empty, and neighbouring families have informed us that some of them have been like it for years.'

The other case is that of the defendant Mrs. Anderson. She is a married woman with a husband and two children aged three and a half years and 16 months. They were living at 52 Lausanne Road. She states: 'We were living in one room of an eight-roomed house, where seven other families were also housed.' She stated that it was damp. They had to send for the rodent officer to get rid of the rats, mice and cockroaches which were a constant problem. The landlord, she says, refused to give them a key. He locked them out on one occasion; but they got back again. She says her husband became very nervous and anxious; his health was affected, the children were nervous and lost weight. Then she states:

'Faced with this terrible situation we could stand things no longer. The harassment and the locking out was wrecking our marriage, and having a disastrous effect on the children... so that we could live together as a family, we, therefore, on the 10th September, 1970, squatted in 38 Harders Orad in the Borough aforesaid, a house in which the floor boards had been ripped up, window sashes smashed, and the toilet concreted up. Since we have moved in, we have repaired all these.'

So those families occupied empty houses which the council evidently had thought were not worthy of repair and were not fit to be occupied. The evidence shows that there are some hundreds of empty houses in Southwark -- 400, we were told, at any rate -- and there is some evidence that their actual conversion or development may not take place for some little time. These squatters, in their distress, felt that they were morally justified in entering into occupation. But have they any legal justification?




I will next consider the defence of 'necessity'. There is authority for saying that in case of great and imminent danger, in order to preserve life, the law will permit of an encroachment on private property. That is shown by Mouse's Case n4, where the ferryman at Gravesend took 47 passengers into his barge to carry them to London. A great tempest arose and all were in danger. Mr. Mouse was one of the passengers. He threw a casket belonging to the plaintiff overboard so as to lighten the ship. Other passengers threw other things. It was proved that, if they had not done so, the passengers would have been drowned. It was held by the whole court that 'in any case of necessity, for the safety of the lives of the passengers' it was lawful for Mr. Mouse to cast the casket out of the barge. The court said it was like the pulling down of a house, in time of fire, to stop it spreading; which has always been held justified pro bono public.

The doctrine so enunciated must, however, be carefully circumscribed. Else necessity would open the door to many an excuse. It was for this reason that it was not admitted in R v Dudley and Stephens n5, where the three shipwrecked sailors, in extreme despair, killed the cabin-boy and ate him to save their own lives. They were held guilty of murder. The killing was not justified by necessity. Similarly, when a man who is starving enters a house and takes food in order to keep himself alive. Our English law does not admit the defence of necessity. It holds him guilty of larceny. Lord Hale said n6 that 'if a person, being under necessity for want of victuals or clothes, shall upon that account clandestinely, and animus furandi, steal another man's food, it is felony'. The reason is because, if hunger were once allowed to be an excuse for stealing, it would open a way through which all kinds of disorder and lawlessness would pass. So here. If homelessness were once admitted as a defence to trespass, no one's house could be safe. Necessity would open a door which no man could shut. It would not only be those in extreme need who would enter. There would be others who would imagine that they were in need, or would invent a need, so as to gain entry. Each man would say his need was greater than the next man's. The plea would be an excuse for all sorts of wrongdoing. So the courts must, for the sake of law and order, take a firm stand. They must refuse to admit the plea of necessity to the hungry and the homeless; and trust that their distress will be relieved by the charitable and the good. Applying these principles, it seems to me in the circumstances of these squatters are not such as to afford any justification or excuse in law for their entry into these houses. We can sympathize with the plight in which they find themselves. We can recognize the orderly way in which they made their entry. But we can go on further. They must make their appeal for help to others, not to us. They must appeal to the council, who will, I am sure, do all it can. They can go to the Minister, if need be. But, so far as these courts are concerned, we must, in the interest of law and order itself, uphold the title to these properties. We cannot allow any individuals, however great their despair, to take the law into their own hands and enter these premises. The court must exercise its summary jurisdiction and order the defendants to go out.


[Judgments of EDMUND DAVIES LJ. And MEGAW LJ. omitted].


Appeals dismissed with costs. Orders for possession in 28 days.