What is Cuckooing? Understanding the Conviction and its Ramifications

“Cuckooing” is one of the more complex criminal offences on the rise in the UK. It is a highly illegal practice that often involves the exploitation of individuals who are vulnerable, isolated or struggling.

So, what is cuckooing? How did it get its name? Who are the perpetrators of this offence – and which groups are most likely to fall victim to the crime? We will explore all of these questions and more in the article below.

DPP Law employs experienced and highly qualified criminal defence solicitors who specialise in cuckooing offences. Here, we share our knowledge of the issue, explain how to recognise cases of cuckooing, discuss potential outcomes of the prosecution process and go through the best ways to build a defence against related charges.

What is Cuckooing?

In the simplest of terms, cuckooing can be defined as the act of exploiting another individual in order to use their home or premises for illegal activity.

The name “cuckooing” derives from the behaviour of the cuckoo, a bird that takes over the nests of other birds in order to lay its eggs and raise its young.

The act of cuckooing may be undertaken by:

  • Illegal drug producers and/or dealers
  • Sex traffickers, modern slavers or purveyors of illegal sex work
  • Dealers of offensive weapons, illegal firearms or other contraband
  • Individuals who intend to financially abuse the legal tenants of the targeted property
  • Individuals who intend to illegally use the targeted property as a place to live
  • Individuals who intend to use the targeted property as a base for other illegal activities, such as acts of violence

Criminals who employ an approach of cuckooing may have access to multiple cuckooed properties at any one time. This allows them to shift their operations to another location quickly and easily in order to avoid detection.

While cuckooing remains prevalent across the UK, police forces nationwide are taking focused and often highly effective steps towards its prevention.

During the “County Lines Intensification” period of October 2023, the Eastern Region Special Operations Unit (ERSOU) alone safeguarded 132 people – including 35 children – and visited 86 addresses suspected to have been cuckooed.

This unit covers just Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, Kent, Norfolk and Suffolk – while 62 cuckooed addresses were visited by the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Constabulary alone in this same period, with 58 vulnerable people, including two children, referred to support services.

Another example is that of West Mercia Police, who visited 127 properties and safeguarded 46 people.

With the majority of these developments occurring over the space of the same week, it is clear just how frequent cases of cuckooing have become in the UK.

How Does Cuckooing Occur?

Perpetrators of cuckooing usually start by selecting a victim based on the suitability of the property in which they live (for example, if they are well-placed to serve certain “County Lines” drug-running networks) and on the ease with which they believe they may exploit the resident.

The next step is to begin the manipulation of their target. The most common methods of manipulation are:

  1. To befriend them and ask for their help. This approach may be particularly effective when used on isolated individuals or those with mental health issues or learning disabilities, as they may not immediately understand that they are being exploited, instead believing that they are simply lending a hand to a friend
  2. To fabricate some form of debt bondage (for example, to do “favours” for them and then demand repayment in the form of access to their home)
  3. To play upon their vulnerabilities – such as substance dependence, learning difficulties, mental health issues, age, social isolation or physical disabilities (for example, a drug dealer planning to “set up shop” in a victim’s house may ply their target with illegal substances, both to keep them compliant and as a form of payment for use of their property)
  4. To use threats of violence or other “negative” action (e.g. stopping their supply of drugs). This culture of threatening behaviour will usually continue throughout the perpetrator’s use of the property in order to prevent the victim from going to the authorities

Cuckoos may also use sex as a means of “repayment” for use of a victims’ house – particularly in cases of human trafficking, illegal sex work or modern slavery.

In some instances, gang members may also manipulate or abuse their partners into aiding them by identifying suitable addresses for cuckooing.

In many cases, children are involved in parts of the cuckooing process – particularly as drug runners or similar, as criminals consider them easy to manipulate. Some young people who are used in this way by criminal gangs will have been reported as missing persons by their legal guardians.

How are Cuckooing Cases Investigated and Prosecuted?

Where cuckooing is suspected, the complexity of the crime often calls for a collaborative approach between bodies such as:

  • The police and/or the National Crime Agency (NCA)
  • Social services
  • Any relevant housing services
  • Care providers and health services, including organisations providing substance abuse support
  • The relevant local authority

In some cases, instances of cuckooing related to drug offences may be uncovered during a County Lines crackdown (as mentioned above).

Other times, friends or neighbours of the victim may recognise evidence of cuckooing and report their concerns to the police.

These signs may include the blocking off of windows and entrances, unrecognised people coming and going, the homeowner being “missing” or uncontactable for an unusual period of time, unexpected items appearing in – or being removed from – the property in question and/or a rise in antisocial behaviour in the area surrounding the home.

Once suspected cuckooing has been reported to the authorities, the local police may pay a visit to the property and conduct interviews with its residents.

Should sufficient evidence of cuckooing be found, the police may begin the prosecution process – and may also work with the local authority in order to obtain a closure order, prohibiting access to the property in question for up to three months.

They may also apply for an injunction, which prevents certain individuals from entering the property. It is also common for the police to rehouse victims of cuckooing and take steps to ensure proper safeguarding for them.

Should any injunctions or closure orders be breached, the police have the right to arrest the individuals in question.

What are the Potential Legal Consequences for Cuckooing Offenders?

The crime of cuckooing is, in fact, made up of a number of offences and forms of criminal exploitation. The legal definitions of these offences may vary depending on the actions taken by the perpetrators and the motives behind those actions.

Depending on the circumstances, suspected perpetrators of cuckooing may face gang-related injunctions under The Policing and Crime Act 2009 (PCA) as amended by the Serious Crime Act 2015, Civil Injunctions under the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014.

Other potential legal tools may include Slavery and Trafficking Risk or Prevention Orders (STROs or STPOs) and Drug Dealing Telecommunication Restriction Orders (DDTROs).

The police may also conduct asset recovery operations in order to confiscate the proceeds of any crime that may have taken place during cuckooing.

Maximum Sentences for Cuckooing

Most sentences for cuckooing are determined following the consideration of aggravating factors such as common assault and the causing of actual or grievous bodily harm, human trafficking and modern slavery, coercion, manipulation and bribery or blackmail – as well as the possession, manufacture and/or supply of illegal substances, weapons or other contraband.

As a starting point, if you are a property owner or landlord whose property has been used to store drugs, you may face up to 14 years’ imprisonment under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971.

However, the maximum sentence for cuckooing may stretch from an unlimited fine and/or life imprisonment.

In some cases, individuals who have been manipulated into aiding cuckooing offenders may be referred to safeguarding specialists or rehabilitation services – although this can vary between local authorities and depends on the nature of the person’s involvement in the crime. The approach usually applies in particular to those suffering from drug addiction or mental health challenges.

Prosecution and Defence

Now we have explained what is cuckooing,  prosecuting an individual accused of cuckooing, legal specialists will first need to determine whether that individual is, in fact, a victim or a perpetrator in the crime – as manipulation is common in offences of this kind.

The crime of allowing one’s property to be used for illegal operations such as drugs production, violence or gang-related activity may be mitigated if the accused is found to have been manipulated due to a certain level of vulnerability – or to have been threatened into acquiescing to the demands of the perpetrators.

For this reason, the best way to defend against accusations of cuckooing is to provide strong evidence of vulnerability and/or significant manipulation – and to explain exactly how that manipulation took place.

If this fails, the occupier of the property and any other parties involved will usually face a fine or even a prison sentence – as well as loss of benefits and/or eviction.

For this reason, it is vital to contact legal experts specialising in building a strong defence against accusations and charges related to cuckooing – such as drug offences.

The highly knowledgeable team at DPP Law will be able to provide you with all of the advice you require.

Visit our website today for further information, or feel free contact us if you have any enquiries surrounding the offence of cuckooing, drugs trafficking or related matters – or if you wish to instruct our team regarding our criminal defence services.