09 February, 2009
As of 1 December 2008, the police and local authorities can apply for premises closure orders (PCO) through the magistrates' courts, as introduced by section 118 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008. This provision permits the court to temporarily close premises which are associated with significant and persistent disorder, or persistent serious nuisance.
Strategies such as these can offer new ways of dealing with anti-social behaviour in communities, by attempting to tackle the issue with an emphasis upon the place, rather than the people, involved in such conduct.
The purpose of a PCO is to provide immediate respite to communities suffering from anti-social behaviour and to offer a method of engaging with perpetrators to stop similar activity in the future and tackle its underlying causes.
PCOs are designed to be used as a last resort and where other intervention tools have been used, considered or rejected for good reason and where the potential implications for children and vulnerable adults in the premises have been considered. They are not be used as an eviction tool or as a 'fast-track' to such an outcome.
Such action should ideally not be taken by either the police or local authority on their own. Consultation between each organisation should take place before any decision is reached. In addition, discussions with registered social landlords and other local services are recommended by Government to offer advance warning of any likely demands upon their facilities as a consequence of pursuing a PCO. Those with either legal or equitable interests in the premises should also be contacted.
PCOs are 'tenure neutral' and apply equally to privately owned properties. Examples of applicable premises include:
When granted by a magistrates' court, the police or local authority can close the property (completely or partially) for a maximum period of three months. They can also prevent access to anyone, including those who may live there. In doing so, the magistrates must be sure that the relevant conditions have been fulfilled and that the closure is necessary in order to prevent further instances of anti-social behaviour.
An application can be made for a closure notice to be issued if a senior police officer or local authority official has reasonable grounds to believe that a person has engaged in anti-social behaviour on the premises in the past three months and that the premises in question are associated with 'significant and persistent disorder or persistent serious nuisance' to members of the public.
The notice alerts those using the property, neighbours and anyone else with an interest who can be identified, of the intention to apply to the court for a PCO. Once a notice has been issued, a PCO must be sought within 48 hours, regardless of whether the behaviour improves or not.
How these phrases are to be interpreted has been left for the courts to decide but examples provided by the Government of what may be considered serious in the circumstances include:
An individual who breaches a closure order is liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for a maximum period of 51 weeks, a fine of £5,000, or both.
Despite there being relatively few PCOs made to date, they have the potential to become a powerful tool that can be used by a range of agencies to give local communities respite from serious instances of anti-social activity.
The procedure for obtaining a PCO is relatively straightforward with applicability to a wide range of premises and properties, combined with a relatively wide definition of behaviour for which such orders can be utilised.