Occupations

Estimated reading: 5 minutes 9 views

Sit-ins

Sit-ins or occupations of property or premises may constitute criminal offences such as trespass, obstruction and besetting, and give rise to civil actions such as trespass. Sit-ins or occupations will often mean facing private security guards before police arrive.

Trespass on private or public land.  Unless a case involves family violence, or there is an eviction order from VCAT, police are unlikely to involve themselves in private trespass cases.  These are usually treated by police as civil matters.  In contrast, police are often involved when the trespass is on public or commercial land.

Because trespass is fundamentally a civil rather than criminal issue, the police decision to become involved in some trespass cases has political and social implications.

Criminal trespass issues frequently arise in areas where the public ordinarily has the right or a licence to be there: such as the QV building next to the Max Brenner Chocolate Bar or a Centrelink building. 

To be charged with trespass, the owner (or person acting with the authority of the owner or leaseholder) of the property must clearly communicate that the person doesn’t have licence to be on the property anymore.  This can be done orally or in writing.  The owner or leaseholder must then give the person whose licence has been revoked, reasonable time to remove themselves from the premises.

Once a person has been given the reasonable opportunity to leave after their licence has been revoked, then they can be arrested for trespass (section 9 Summary Offences Act).

Besetting

Occupations can also attract the criminal charge of besetting. Besetting means that a group of people obstruct, hinder or impede others from entering or leaving a premises.

To be found guilty of this offence, the police must prove that you obstructed the entry and exits so that it was not possible for a person to enter or leave the premises. (Victoria Police v Anderson [2012] VMC 22 (Max Brenner Case).

In other words, obstructing one or more doorways while others were accessible would not be enough to find protesters guilty of besetting.

See Private security guards.

Squatting

Squatting is the act of making use of empty, disused and abandoned property. It allows people who cannot otherwise afford to rent or purchase a house or building to put an empty one to productive use.

Unlike in some other countries, In Victoria there is no legal right to squat in empty, disused and abandoned property. But if squatters have been in a place uninterrupted and exclusively for 15 years they can apply for ownership over the land. This is known as ‘adverse possession’. 

There have been successful attempts in stopping the eviction of squatters and instead moving people into stable and permanent housing. In 2016 the Homeless Persons Union Victoria represented a group of people who were living in a number of houses (in Collingwood, Parkville and Clifton Hill) which had been left vacant for the construction of the controversial “East-West Link” road. After receiving eviction orders from the State Government and Victoria Police the group filed for an injunction in the Supreme Court of Victoria. An injunction was granted on two occasions.

  • Firstly, because insufficient time had been allowed to the residents to find alternative accommodation and the residents would be forced into, or back into, homelessness.
  • And secondly, that the government’s choice to use Victoria Police, and not the courts or a tribunal, as to secure possession of the properties was uncommon.

In granting the injunction, Justice Garde said that Government agencies’ primary roles were care givers and supports and that the way the State Government had tried to evict people was in opposition to this primary role.

For information about the law and squatting in Melbourne go to the No Frills Melbourne Squatters Guide (much of the information will be useful for people in other parts of Australia as well).

Other resources include: The SUWA show on Community Radio 3CR.

The website of the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights provides useful information on forced evictions and human rights.

Social centres

Social centres are an international activist initiative that aims to make use of self-managed space through autonomous decision-making. Social centres are the result of occupation movements that re-appropriate property for activist and working class community space.

These kinds of squats are part of an international matrix of squatting movements with histories of supporting worker, peasant, student and community uprisings critical of private property systems and government power.

Again there is no legal right to occupy premises which are being used as a social centre.

The Occupy Melbourne protest was itself a social centre. The squatted space regularly held meetings, workshops, skill shares, provided food and meals, and was a space for people to collectively meet and discuss the occupy movement.

For information about social centres see SCAN Social Centre Stories.

CONTENTS