Few topics in modern Britain elicit such a rich seam of uninformed nonsense as the thorny question of “burglars’ rights”. Every few months a story will appear in the papers about a burglar whose night ended prematurely as a result of an outraged homeowner bashing him over the head with a baseball bat, hammering him in the ribs with a six-iron, or (occasionally) shooting him with his favourite antique blunderbuss. Such tales usually are met with a “serves you right” reaction by most people, I suspect. Certainly I would admit to that being my usual reaction.
A few months ago, in the middle of the night, I was convinced we were being burgled and, for a few seconds, I was both terrified and enraged. When you have a three-year-old child sleeping in the next room, the idea of someone coming, uninvited, into your house in the dead of night is a deeply disturbing one. In this particular case it turned-out to be a false alarm; there was no burglar and I had no need to employ my six-iron (which given recent golfing exploits was fortunate in the extreme – I would almost certainly have missed the intruder and smashed my foot instead). Within a few minutes my adrenaline levels had returned to normal.
I mention this because David Cameron has recently declared that what you are allowed to do to burglars when they come into your home is a subject that “bothers people”. He has said that amending the law to only prosecuting homeowners who use “grossly disproportionate” force, rather than “disproportionate” force, which is where we currently stand, will give people “certainty” about what they can and can’t do in defence of their homes and families. So, here we go again, another politician who is being “tough” on crime in order that the more bloodthirsty of our tabloids don’t label him as a “soft touch”. It’s all grandstanding, political hot air for the hard-of-thinking, a politician in Tarzanesque mode beating his chest and inviting us all to admire how “tough” he is. And it’s pathetic.
It’s based on an assumption that across the country right-minded people, whose only “crime” has been to attack an intruder in their home, are being prosecuted and imprisoned just for taking the kind of action that anyone would take in such circumstances. And it is an assumption that is completely without foundation. It is based on a tabloid agenda that makes politicians desperate not to be seen as “soft” on anything, ranging from crime to benefit fraud to illegal immigration to anti-social behaviour. It takes no account of what the situation actually is, just what a few imbeciles in the media say it is. The narrative weighs “soft” against “tough”, rather than “inaccurate” against “accurate” or “populist tub-thumper” against “reasoned decision-maker”.
All of which is just as well for people like Cameron, another all-things-to-all-men politician in the Blairite mould, who won’t do “facts” when “impressions” are much more important. He tells us that people aren’t sure about what they can do if a burglar comes into their home. Well, for starters there is no list of what you can and can’t do, and the new proposals certainly don’t alter that fact. Secondly, if people are that concerned (and I don’t think most people particularly are) then they can quite easily establish what the law says on the matter, given that most of us have internet access these days. Is the PM seriously suggesting that new laws are needed every time some people aren’t sure about what the current law states? That doesn’t seem like a particularly efficient way to run a country. He seems like a man with either little command of his facts, or (more likely) a complete disregard for facts when hyperbole and posturing offer him a greater chance to make some political capital.
So here are some facts, just for David of Oxfordshire:
(1) A householder may be liable to criminal prosecution if he uses force against an intruder resulting in the intruder’s death or injury. However, he will have a COMPLETE defence if the force he used was reasonable and was exercised either in self defence, defence of another, defence of his property, or in the prevention of crime.
(2) The question of whether the force used in any particular case was “reasonable” will be answered on the basis of the circumstances and the danger AS THE HOUSEHOLDER BELIEVED THEM TO BE. This is so even if the householder’s belief was a mistaken one honestly held.
(3) The householder is NOT expected to undertake a detailed risk analysis before deciding whether to use force.
(4) If there has been attack so that defence is reasonably necessary it will be recognised that a person defending himself cannot weigh to a nicety the exact measure of his necessary defensive action. If a jury thought that in a moment of unexpected anguish a person attacked had only done what he HONESTLY AND INSTINCTIVELY THOUGHT WAS NECESSARY that would be most potent evidence that only reasonable defensive action had been taken.
(5) You DO NOT have to wait to be attacked before attacking an intruder.
(6) On average, the amount of homeowners who are successfully prosecuted after violence against a burglar is around ONE per year over the past twenty years or so. Yes, ONE per year.
So, you may well ask, exactly why does the law need changing?
Well, in truth it doesn’t. This is a favourite political football of the Conservative Party, designed to make them look like tough guys on the side of the poor, cowering, defenceless homeowner and everyone else look like standard-bearers for the right to burgle. Visit the forums and they will be full of people fulsome in their praise of the new proposals, yet seemingly unaware of the law as it stands. Favourite comments are along the lines of “At last, we have the right to defend ourselves and our property”, made by people who I can only conclude must positively revel in their own ignorance of the fact that they already have those rights. The most amazing thing is that the newspaper columnists and right-wing shock-jocks, who want to make us all believe that we currently have no rights in our own homes,are the same people who regularly abuse politicians for the amount of legislative red tape that they produce. The new proposals will add nothing, just the chance for some posturing by some alleged “tough” guys.
These same people will champion people like Tony Martin, the man who shot and killed one of the two burglars who broke into his house in 1999, yet never acknowledge that what turned the Martin case into such a media circus was the fact that it was such a rare event, i.e a homeowner being prosecuted for the nature of his defence of his property. Cases like those of the Ferries in Leicestershire or Omari Roberts in Nottinghamshire (who was to be tried but was quickly released from custody when fresh evidence came to light) don’t fit their nonsensical agendas. So they ignore them.
Rest assured they won’t tell you about the Greater Manchester newsagent who fatally stabbed a robber and who wasn’t prosecuted (though the other robber was). They won’t mention the homeowner in Derbyshire who came home to find a burglar in his house, struggled with the burglar (who eventually died after hitting his head) but wasn’t prosecuted. You won’t hear about the Hertfordshire barmaid who shot armed robbers with a shotgun and wasn’t prosecuted. And not for them is the story of the burglar in Lincolnshire who was stabbed to death with his own knife by a homeowner who, yes you guessed it, wasn’t prosecuted. Doesn’t fit the agenda, you see?
So now we must listen, during conference season (what a coincidence!), to a Tory leader who thinks that any level of violence against burglars that is not “grossly disproportionate” is fine. Which is all well and good, but doesn’t explain why, before he was PM, he told the Daily Mail in early 2010 that:
‘The moment a burglar steps over your threshold and invades your property, with all the threat that gives to you, your family and your livelihood, I think they leave their human rights outside.’
So he’s changed his position then, hasn’t he? He’s gone from “no human rights” to “some human rights” unless I’m very much mistaken.
Seems like he’s gone “soft” doesn’t it?