I don’t think we are just legal. I think we are a repository of collective knowledge.
— Kim, he/him
The Advisory Service for Squatters (ASS) was set up in 1975 as a successor to the Family Squatters Advice Service which had been providing support for squatters since the late 1960s. The purpose of ASS has shifted over time, but its central premise is to provide legal and practical advice for squatters.
This can range from assisting with legal defences upon receipt of eviction notices, attending court, offering advice on how to access electricity and other utilities, helping people find a new crew to live with, and generally helping people ensure their home is secure.
Since 1976 the ASS has also published the Squatters Handbook — a practical guide for squatters on the various different elements involved in opening and maintaining a building. The Squatters Handbook is currently on its 14.5th edition and can be purchased from the ASS itself and Freedom Bookshop, among other disreputable establishments.
I volunteered with the ASS for a year, during the pandemic, during which time I spoke to several squatters past and present about the service and the importance of the solidarity and mutual aid it provides.
Below is a brief overview of the ways in which ASS helps squatters, and why the work they do is so valuable.
I would go to ASS, I’ve probably got multiple copies of the Squatters Handbook upstairs that I’ve read through religiously and I think it was the backbone of the London squatting scene for decades. I think the work that ASS have done is phenomenal and if I was holding somewhere that was getting an eviction notice and I needed legal advice, then I would go to ASS.
— Jim, he/him
One of the first things I was struck by was the immediate nature of what ASS do.
It was like a routine, wasn’t it, you get the papers, you bring them down to ASS straight away.
— Oliver, he/him
Many times we are given notice of hearing only a few days, sometimes less than 24 hours, before the defendants are due in court. And the stakes are impossibly high: losing your home.
This means that long-term goals and development have to come second to the pressing issues we deal with. Not to mention that due to leading precarious lives, and not necessarily having access to wifi, computers, printers etc, squatters are often difficult to contact in advance and get an explanation of their situation with enough time to go to court.
Surviving legal changes — and a pandemic
Prior to the pandemic and when ASS was functioning normally, there would be a volunteer in the office every weekday afternoon, so people could bring their papers and have a sit down discussion with the volunteer about their situation and what best to include in a defence.
Because I’d been through the poll tax struggle, through the poll tax struggle, I’d realised the use of the law, and how fun it could be.
This changed during the pandemic to the office being run largely virtually, via allotted days being managed through phone conversations and the email list, which made it much harder to communicate with squatters facing eviction — especially when, oftentimes, English was not their first language, or there was confusion over which member of the crew to be in contact with.
I was at ASS. Because I started learning Spanish at the absolute peak of huge numbers of Spanish people moving to London and squatting. The absolute peak of that, I was learning Spanish. Being able to speak Spanish meant that I was helping people … And people would be getting me to come and translate and other people in the ASS crew would need me to translate for people or people were telling people to go in on Monday because the people there speak Spanish on a Monday and people would explicitly tell people to go and see me so they could speak to me in Spanish. So that was quite good.
— Siobhan, she/her
A major takeaway from my time with ASS was that we never ever judged people for their situation — for bringing in papers impossibly last minute, for providing papers as blurry, wonky photographs, for dropping out of communication, for forgetting to go to court after we had spent hours drafting their defence — whatever.
We approached every single case with compassion and understanding and zero blame, something I had rarely come across even in left-wing organisations. I think the fact that the collective was made up largely from current or former squatters and people who’d experienced other forms of housing precarity added a lot to this. We all had experience of different impossible situations and nothing, nothing at all, would stop us from trying our absolute hardest to help someone avoid losing their home.
I used it a lot. I went to a few meetings for one reason or another. But I was also one of the people that would go to ASS to deal with the papers. So if any possession, court, papers come up. So I was there a lot.
— Layla, she/her
The nature of ASS and its relationship with the state has changed as the UK has become increasingly antagonistic towards squatting. In the early days the ASS was considered one of the voluntary organisations you could work with in order to increase your benefit contributions.
A friend of mine was working at ASS for an extra tenner a week on his dole and suggested that I did the same. This was in 1994. So there were lots of people. The meetings were lively. There was quite a good structure. I mean things worked around things written in the daybook, things written on notes and left for the next shift or for the meeting.
As squatting has decreased in size and increasingly hostile laws have come into place the remit of ASS and the range of assistance it can offer has shrunk but it is still recognised as an integral part of the squatting movement, not only in London ( its office is situated in London, currently in the Freedom Press building in Whitechapel), but across the country.
The 2012 residential squatting ban, a late addition to the Legal Aid, Sentencing, and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO), was an enormous blow to the squatting movement, forcing ASS to recalibrate what was possible to achieve under increasingly intolerant circumstances. It banned the squatting of even long-derelict residential units, only exempting squats of commercial sites, or buildings in the process of conversion. However, out of this came a wave of protest squats, utilising a loophole in the law to allow squatters to occupy residential buildings if it was seen as a political protest.
When LASPO came in, we worked out how you could have a protest squat and what it meant. It was a solid grass roots campaign, taking over an empty block of flats for a limited period of time as part of the campaign to take back the estate — it’s just that since then it’s just ground on and on, and it’s the same people, less people trying to do the same thing and without actual successes.
And over the last decade the laws have tightened further, the most recent addition being the Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Act 2022 which criminalises trespass. Designed to target the already heavily marginalised gypsy and traveller community, this act could also see further restrictions on the practice of squatting. However, all this means is that organisations like ASS are more vital than ever and deserve your support any way it can be offered.
Despite LASPO, I still feel like I’m doing something useful. Before LASPO, we were helping people house themselves. That was it. Now it doesn’t really feel like that. It’s not a mass thing. You have to be fairly hardcore to squat these days. You have to want to do it. So many of the people who housed themselves by squatting before LASPO are probably now the fucking guardians** because it’s exciting, it’s edgy. It’s easy. It’s got a bit more legitimacy. So what we have to offer has been undercut for the moment.
The ASS has been the backbone of the British squatting movement for over 45 years, helping thousands of people resist eviction, find safe — if temporary — housing, and providing support, compassion, and practical advice to those on the brink of homelessness. Its impact and its importance can not be overstated.
It’s an incredible organisation that helps so many people and it’s fucking amazing.
If you need legal advice or other support with squatting you can contact ASS via email on [email protected] or text them at 07545 508-628. Likewise, ASS are always in need of more volunteers so do let them know if you have enthusiasm or expertise to contribute to keeping people safe, secure, and housed.
~ Rowan Tallis Milligan
Pic: The old ASS hotline from years past, which was half-melted in a fire.
This article first appeared in the Winter 2022/23 edition of Freedom journal.