What is the law on bashing burglars?
The headlines and news bulletins over the past two days have focused on this story:
(Your attention is respectfully drawn to the headline,
I make clear at the outset that I offer no comment whatsoever on this particular case. While the editorial slants of the tabloids may hint at two-fingered salutes to the law of “strict liability” contempt of court, I am going to play safe by disclaiming that, as criminal proceedings in this case are “live” within the meaning of Schedule 1 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 (a suspect having been arrested without a warrant), what follows is intended as a contribution to a discussion in good faith of public affairs or other matters of general public interest.
What I want to look at briefly, therefore, is the law of self-defence in what lawyers euphemistically refer to as “householder cases” – where force is used by a householder against a trespasser in a dwelling. In dipping into this legalese, I do not for a moment seek to minimise or cloak the stark reality that confronting a burglar in your home is one of the most terrifying experiences imaginable. Burglary of somebody’s home is an offence which, in my view, is treated with relative disdain by the criminal justice system. Its ubiquity means that insufficient resources are made available to police to investigate (hence shocking reports of 9 out of 10 burglary investigations being closed without a suspect being identified). Its prevalence means it is considered by the CPS to be one of the least serious criminal offences for the purpose of instructing prosecuting barristers, attracting a miserly fee (£480 for a 2-day trial requiring on average 20 hours’ work (2 days at court plus a conservative 4 hours’ preparation), so around £24 gross an hour, of which I would take home about £12), and is therefore prosecuted often by the least experienced in our ranks. And, while I am not one predisposed towards longer sentences, I have a lot of sympathy with members of the public who feel that a Sentencing Guideline starting point of 1 year’s imprisonment, of which a defendant will serve a maximum of 6 months, does not adequately reflect the harm done by the violation that breaking into someone’s home represents. The after-effects can last forever. It is not a mere property offence; it is an encroachment into a person or a family’s safest space. And I think many of us in the system can become inured to that truth.
So there is my opening salvo: I hold no affection for burglars. Don’t allow the clinical nature of what follows to lead you to think otherwise.
But, since the tale of Tony Martin in 1997, elements of the press and the Conservative party have become fixated on the notion that an Englishman’s home is no more his castle; that, confronted by an intruder in the dead of night, the householder is required to deferentially hand over the code to the safe and ensure that the burglar is safely escorted from the premises with his bag of swag bulging and his bodily integrity intact. What followed, under the intellectual guidance of Chris Grayling, was a change to the law in 2012 seeking to persuade Middle England that, in the words of the prematurely-celebratory Sun headline, “It’s Official: You Can Batter a Burglar”. We’ll have a look below at what that means in practice.
The law of self-defence
It is a longstanding principle of English common law that a person is entitled to use reasonable force in self-defence, or in defence of another. There are also statutory defences of using reasonable force in defence of property or in the prevention of crime and arrest/apprehension of offenders.
In 2008, the common law defence of self-defence was put on a statutory footing in section 76 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008. What it means in practice is as follows:
A person acting in genuine self-defence is entitled to use such force as is reasonable in the circumstances as he believes them to be. This provides a defence to any charge of violence, up to and including the use of lethal force;
The first question that a jury must ask is Did the defendant believe or may he have believed that it was necessary to use force to defend himself an attack or imminent attack on himself or others or to protect property or prevent crime?
The second question is Was the amount of force D used reasonable in the circumstances, including the dangers as D believed them to be?
The burden is on the prosecution to disprove self-defence. It is not for a defendant to prove that he was acting in self-defence. The prosecution have to prove beyond reasonable doubt (so that a jury is sure) that the defendant was not acting in reasonable self-defence.
Let’s break down what this means.
“A genuine belief that force is necessary”
The question here is subjective – i.e. did the defendant genuinely believe he needed to use force in self-defence? It does not matter if the defendant was in fact mistaken, as long as he believed that at the time. So if a 6-foot man wearing a terrifying bear costume runs towards you brandishing what looks like a machete, and you genuinely believe he is about to attack you, the fact that you later realise the “machete” is a hunnypot and that you’ve KO’d Winnie The Pooh in front of a distraught crowd of Disneyland toddlers does not matter. The fact that your belief in the need for force was, by objective standards, unreasonable – who would mistake a hunnypot for a machete, for Lord’s sake? – does not matter at this stage. It might make the jury less likely to accept your insistence that your belief was genuine; however the bottom line is that a mistaken, unreasonable but genuinely-held belief in the need for force is enough. (The only exception is if your mistaken belief is due to your voluntary intoxication. Because, frankly, getting tanked on Stella and raining fury on Winnie The Pooh in a fountain is not something the courts can condone).
Whether force is reasonable has to be judged by the circumstances as the defendant believed them to be, even if, as above, he was in fact mistaken. So if you genuinely believe that a machete attack is imminent, what is reasonable has to be assessed by reference to that belief. What is reasonable will obviously depend on the individual case, but section 76 reflects the famous words of Lord Morris in the case of Palmer v R 1971 AC 814, which are distilled in some form to juries when they are given their directions of law by the trial judge:
“If there has been an attack so that self defence is reasonably necessary, it will be recognised that a person defending himself cannot weigh to a nicety the exact measure of his defensive action. If the jury thought that that in a moment of unexpected anguish a person attacked had only done what he honestly and instinctively thought necessary, that would be the most potent evidence that only reasonable defensive action had been taken...”
Further pointers in section 76 include the provision that if force is “disproportionate”, it cannot by its nature be “reasonable”. Which sounds self-evident, one might think, but we’ll come to this more in a second. It is also made explicit that, while the possibility of a defendant having been able to retreat is a factor to consider when assessing reasonableness, there is no “duty to retreat”. It is also long-established that a person may strike pre-emptively – you do not need to wait to be hit.
So in a nutshell, the law of self-defence means that the prosecution must make a jury sure that either a defendant didn’t really believe he needed to use force, or that he did but used unreasonable force – for example killing someone with a gun in response to a slap to the face – bearing in mind the broad scope of appreciation allowed in these cases.
Simple, right? Well, not, sadly, in cases involving burglars. As we shall now see…
In 2011, Prime Minister David Cameron, having promised in his party’s manifesto to afford “greater protection” to householders who use force against burglars, said:
‘We’ll put beyond doubt that homeowners and small shopkeepers who use reasonable force to defend themselves or their properties will not be prosecuted.’
Quite how Mr Cameron intended to guarantee that fetter on the discretion of the independent Crown Prosecution Service was never explained, but the public was thereafter treated to Chris Grayling’s party piece at the Conservative party conference, which went someway beyond Mr Cameron’s hashed restatement of the existing law. And, as you might expect, Mr Grayling’s idea was as poor in execution as it was stupid in policy.
Grayling, having dissembled to the crowd about what the existing law of self-defence said, insisted that a new law was needed which changed the test. No longer was “reasonable self-defence” a sufficient litmus. Instead, householders should only be convicted where they had used “grossly disproportionate” force. Merely “disproportionate” force, it followed, was no more than burglars deserved. Section 76(5A) was duly inserted into the Act.
Inevitably, once reality bit, Grayling’s dreams came crashing down around him. He lost the support of the Mail once they saw guidance sent to judges and prosecutors “admitting that the provision does not give householders free rein to use disproportionate force in every case they are confronted by an intruder.” (You can just hear the disappointment jumping off the page). The exemption did not apply to the use of force to protect property, for example. Nor did it apply to “non-dwelling buildings”. So if you saw someone stealing your lawnmower from your shed, you could not use disproportionate force to stop them.
But worst of all, when the High Court was called upon to interpret section 76(5A), it confirmed that its drafting did not in fact have the effect that Grayling had desired. The CPS had interpreted s.76(5A) in accordance with the newspaper headlines – only where the prosecution could prove grossly disproportionate force would it be appropriate to prosecute. But the High Court said otherwise: all the new law did was to confirm (as if confirmation were needed) that anyone using “grossly disproportionate” force could not, by definition, be using reasonable force. Force which was “merely” disproportionate could be reasonable in householder cases, but would not always be. The test, as with all cases of self-defence, remained whether force was “reasonable” in the circumstances.
So, in conclusion, where a householder is confronted by a burglar, if they genuinely believe they need to use force in self-defence, they can use such force as is reasonable in the circumstances. If they use “grossly disproportionate” force, they cannot rely on self-defence. If they use merely “disproportionate” force, that may or may not be reasonable. Got it? If not, you can blame Grayling for the unnecessary confusion injected by the pointless test of “gross disproportionality”.
Much has been made about the fact that the 78-year old householder in the present case has been arrested and (presumably) interviewed by the police, before being released. It is worth remembering that the police have a legal duty to investigate cases where there has been a loss of life. Part of the investigation may involve arresting a suspect so that they can be interviewed.
Whether an arrest is necessary in a given case – as opposed to inviting a suspect in for an interview – depends on whether certain statutory factors have been satisfied. But on its face, there is little unusual in the police arresting somebody suspected of killing another person. The police will usually have a reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed – because somebody has died a non-natural death – and the arrest will usually be necessary to allow a prompt and effective investigation, the combination of which means that an arrest is permissible. It is no indication of whether a charge will follow; rather it is on its face the police complying with their legal duties. When a suspect is arrested and detained at a police station, they have a panoply of rights, including the right to independent legal advice. If they are interviewed under caution (as one would expect), they will have the opportunity to advance any account of self-defence, which will then form part of the file that is passed to the Crown Prosecution Service for a charging decision.
The charging decision
The Code for Crown Prosecutors provides that when a charging decision is being taken the test is two-fold – (i) is there a realistic prospect of conviction on the evidence? (ii) Is a prosecution in the public interest. If a suspect offers self-defence as an explanation in their police interview, the CPS will have to be satisfied that there is sufficient evidence to disprove this beyond reasonable doubt, applying the above test. Even if they are satisfied of the evidence, they must then consider the public interest. CPS Guidance says:
When reviewing cases involving assertions of self-defence or action in the prevention of crime/preservation of property, prosecutors should be aware of the balance to be struck:
- the public interest in promoting a responsible contribution on the part of citizens in preserving law and order; and
- in discouraging vigilantism and the use of violence generally.
There is often a degree of sensitivity to be observed in such cases; this is particularly important when the alleged victim of an offence was himself/herself engaged in criminal activity at the relevant time. For instance, a burglar who claims to have been assaulted by the occupier of the premises concerned.
Upon inspection of most of the tabloid’s causes celebres, one will often find a fairly sensible explanation for a decision to prosecute a householder who has injured or killed a burglar. Sometimes, as with Tony Martin, the homeowner will have used lethal force on a burglar fleeing the property, or will have chased him down the street and given him a sound thrashing. The bottom line, as has always been the bottom line notwithstanding the dishonesty of Chris Grayling, is that using reasonable force against a burglar will rarely result in a prosecution, much less a conviction.🔷
|The Secret Barrister is the author of the book "The Secret Barrister: Stories of the Law and How It's Broken", available on Amazon in print, eBook and audiobook.|
(This piece was first published on The Secret Barrister Blog.)