Southwark London Borough Council v Williams: CA 1971

No Defence of Homelessness to Squatters

The defendants, in dire need of housing accommodation entered empty houses owned by the plaintiff local authority as squatters. The court considered the defence of necessity.
Held: The proper use of abandoned council properties is best determined by political decision making processes. Squatters, in urgent need of accommodation, could not claim a defence of necessity because the peril they found themselves in was ‘an obstinate and longstanding state of affairs’, rather than an immediate or emergent threat. The court denied that if a starving beggar takes the law into his own hands and steals food he is not guilty of theft.
Lord Denning MR said: ‘If homelessness were once admitted as a defence to trespass, no one’s house could be safe. Necessity would open a door no man could shut. It would not only be those in extreme need who would enter. There would be others who would imagine they were in need or would invent a need, so as to gain entry. The plea would be an excuse for all sorts of wrongdoing. So the courts 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 good.’
Edmund Davies LJ said: ‘But when and how far is the plea of necessity available to one who is prima facie guilty of tort? Well, one thing emerges with clarity from the decisions and that is that the law regards with the deepest suspicion any remedies of self-help and permits those remedies to be resorted to only in very special circumstances. The reason for such circumspection is clear -necessity can very easily become simply a mask for anarchy.’

Lord Denning MR, Edmund-Davies LJ
[1971] 1Ch 734, [1971] 2 All ER 175, [1971] 2 WLR 467
England and Wales
Cited by:
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A group carried out direct action in protesting against GM crops by pulling up the plants. The group’s media liaison officer, while not actually pulling up plants himself, ‘reconnoitred the site the day before. He met the press at a prearranged . .
CitedIn Re A (Minors) (Conjoined Twins: Medical Treatment); aka In re A (Children) (Conjoined Twins: Surgical Separation) CA 22-Sep-2000
Twins were conjoined (Siamese). Medically, both could not survive, and one was dependent upon the vital organs of the other. Doctors applied for permission to separate the twins which would be followed by the inevitable death of one of them. The . .
CitedWhite v Withers Llp and Dearle CA 27-Oct-2009
The claimant was involved in matrimonial ancillary relief proceedings. His wife was advised by the defendants, her solicitors, to remove his private papers. The claimant now sought permission to appeal against a strike out of his claim against the . .
CitedRegina v Burns, Paul CACD 27-Apr-2010
The defendant appealed against his conviction for assault. He had picked up a sex worker, driven away, but then changed his mind, and forcibly removed her from the car when she delayed. He now argued that he had the same right at common law to . .
CitedCity of London v Samede and Others QBD 18-Jan-2012
The claimant sought an order for possession of land outside St Paul’s cathedral occupied by the protestor defendants, consisting of ‘a large number of tents, between 150 and 200 at the time of the hearing, many of them used by protestors, either . .

Lists of cited by and citing cases may be incomplete.

Torts – Other, Crime, Housing, Land

Leading Case

Updated: 11 November 2021; Ref: scu.183171