In today’s Guardian, Marcel Berlins ponders burglary, self-defence and being reasonable.
Many people hoping for an unrestricted green light to beat up or shoot their burglars or robbers, even unto death, will be disappointed. The new law turns out to be the old law, thinly disguised. Force against an intruder must not be excessive or disproportionate in the circumstances, says the new act. In other words, reasonable. The old law, too, is based on the concept of “reasonable force”. Indeed, the justice secretary, Jack Straw, explains the new law by referring to the right to use reasonable force. Moreover, the Ministry of Justice gives several real examples of cases in which - under the old law - defenders of their property were not prosecuted for injuring, or even killing their intruders. So, it seems, the law worked perfectly well in refusing to take any court action against victims who reacted violently when threatened by potentially dangerous intruders, and the new law doesn't seem to change anything...
Nor would the new law help anyone who, warned of a possible break-in, lies in wait and takes forceful action against the burglar. Such conduct has been premeditated. To avoid being prosecuted, it would have to be an instinctive reaction.
The problem, of course, is what constitutes reasonable force and who gets to decide. If you’re going to judge how others react in such a situation, and judge what is “reasonable,” you should first indulge in some pretty vivid empathy. Imagine you and your partner wake abruptly in the middle of the night. You hear a stranger moving about in the hallway outside your bedroom. Your newborn child is sleeping quietly, for once, in the room across the hall. There’s now an intruder between you and your child and his motives are unclear but certainly not benign. He’s obviously used force to break into your home at a time when you’re most vulnerable. It’s an act of premeditated violation and he may well use force again. Has he made these efforts in order to steal your property or to do you mortal harm? And, if interrupted, will the former involve the latter? What if your child wakes and starts crying?
Is it “reasonable” to assume that the intruder is merely a thief who doesn’t mind terrorising those whose homes he violates and whose property he steals, but isn’t prepared to do actual violence to his victims, even when cornered? And on what is that assumption based? Given the situation, and the fact your heart is pounding, do you really have the time and means to fathom the intruder’s motives and take them into account before acting – and acting without “excess”? Or do you use whatever force possible to disable the intruder before he can even think about harming you or your child? And what if the intruder is bigger and stronger than you? What if he’s armed with a knife or a gun? Are you going to wait to find out, dutifully bearing in mind the likelihood of subsequent legal disputation?
Wouldn’t it be wise to disable him as quickly as possible, by whatever means, rather than risk being at his mercy, along with the rest of your family? Doesn’t that most likely involve using as much force as can be mustered - say, with a decisive blow to the head using one of these - even if that risks the intruder’s death or serious, permanent injury? Is that “excessive or disproportionate” - or is it a basic moral imperative? And if the law doesn’t permit such things, and permit them unequivocally, don’t you have a right to be just a little “disappointed”? Don’t we want a world in which it’s the bad guys that are scared, and scared for very good reasons?