Southwark London Borough Council v Williams and Another  [1971] Ch 734

The availability of the defence of necessity for squatters in desperate need of housing.


The defendants were in need of housing, both having been forced to leave their current lodgings. The defendants sought the assistance of a squatters’ association which helped them gain orderly entry into local authority owned houses. The houses in question belonged to a group of hundreds of houses that were left vacant by the local authority whilst awaiting development in order to provide housing for those on the authority’s housing list. At first instance an order for possession was made by the trial judge. The defendants appealed.


The Court of Appeal was required to decide whether the families were entitled to remain within the properties they were occupying either because (1) the local authority was in breach of its duty under National Assistance Act 1948, s 21 and (2) whether the defence of necessity was available to the possession order.


It was held that (1) the local authority was in breach of its duty under section 21 of the 1948 Act. However, the Act contained specific remedies for beach, namely approaching the Minister with regards to enforcing the duty (s. 36). There was no private law remedy available to the defendants. (2) The defendants could not rely on the defence of necessity to their trespass of the properties. Even though authority existed supporting the view that in extreme circumstances the preservation of life allows encroachment onto private property (Mouse’s Case (1609) 12 Co Rep 63), the facts for the defendants did not amount to extreme circumstances and furthermore, even if they were, it could not be suggested that these circumstances were continuing to the extent that the defendants should be allowed to remain living in the properties indefinitely. The appeal was dismissed.