Proportionate Force And The Homeowner

burglarOne of the many pronouncements which made it into the news from this week’s Conservative party conference was that homeowners will have more legal protection when confronted by burglars on their property.

It’s long been a sore point with pretty much everyone, regardless of their political allegiances, that attacking a burglar on your own property has left the homeowner vulnerable to prosecution and imprisonment. The case of Tony Martin, the Norfolk farmer who shot two intruders and found himself on the wrong end of a murder charge, has been relentlessly held up by the pro and anti lobby as a demonstration of what exactly homeowners can’t do to protect themselves and their homes from burglars. Last year, a Manchester man was arrested after stabbing a burglar but later released without charge.

But you can’t just kill the burglar now, right? Right. The use of “grossly disproportionate force” will probably result in arrest, but the bar will be higher than the current “proportionate force” line. Civil rights group Liberty, say the policy is irresponsible and that it appears designed to encourage vigilante execution”. Prime Minister David Cameron and the relatively newly-minted Justice Secretary Chris Grayling say they’re protecting homeowners, using the scenario of an armed homeowner and an unarmed burglar to illustrate their case, but the message is that if someone breaks into your home, they’ve given up their rights.

Having been burgled twice and lost irreplaceable jewellery and a car, not to mention the resulting horrible feeling of insecurity, of fear, which takes quite a long time to go away, a lot of me thinks this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I can’t disagree that someone breaking into my house to steal my stuff deserves fewer rights than me. On neither occasion was I at home, though the second burglary occurred at a time when I normally would have been just arriving home from work. It’s hard to say what I would have done had I come home and found a strange man in my bedroom going through my cupboards. Probably he would have attacked me first. I expect I would have fought back, but a lone woman without a black belt in karate isn’t going to achieve much against someone determined to escape.

I think the vast majority of homeowners, if they were woken in the night by a burglar or came home to find a burglar in their house, would be paralysed with fear before perhaps over-reacting and going after them with the nearest blunt (or sharp) object and this is the area the change addresses. It’s highly unlikely a burglar would be shot as firearms licences require weapons to be kept locked up with ammunition separate and if you have time to get your shotgun out of its cupboard, load it and shoot someone then either you’re Jack Bauer or they’re a very inept burglar.

Will the changes to the law make a difference? It’s unlikely to stop burglaries. Burglars will ensure they commit the crime while the homeowner is out, or go equipped to deal with any confrontation with a homeowner. To me, this seems rather as though the government are simply opening up a new avenue for burglars to be dealt with by someone other than them, rather like the constant pushing of the general public to grass up their neighbours and engage in counter-terrorism. Though it is reassuring to know that if I did get home and find someone burgling my house and I did somehow manage to hit them hard enough to cause damage, I wouldn’t be potentially looking at the inside of a prison cell as a result. Which is nice.

The two burglaries I experienced never resulted in prosecution, or even arrest. In fact, the forces in question — Thames Valley and Essex — never contacted me again after the initial reporting of the crime, much less recovered my stuff or caught anyone. The police seem singularly disinterested in burglary, probably because they know the homeowner’s insurance will stump up for any damage or loss. And probably because they know they will never investigate enough to catch anyone.

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