Has it really come to this? Will elections of the future really be decided on how much violence we are prepared to countenance against criminals?
Chris Grayling’s keynote speech at the Conservative Party Conference will today propose a change to the law on self-defence against burglars, to allow ‘disproportionate’ force to be used. The ‘hang em and flog em’ brigade will lap it up here in Birmingham, taking it as a sign that the Tories are finally taking charge of law and order and that brief, liberal nightmare of Ken Clarke’s time at the Ministry of Justice is now a distant memory.
But this is political opportunism of the worst kind – panicked, dangerous and counter-productive politics, with policies thought up on a whim for the sake of a few middle England votes. For a start, it doesn’t make sense. If a disproportionate action is deemed acceptable, then surely it is no longer disproportionate? Otherwise what’s the use of the term in the first place?
For David Cameron to claim, as he told the BBC this morning, that there has been ‘uncertainty’ about what people are allowed to do when a burglar comes into their home is staggering. Because if there is a problem with the current wording of the laws, that’s his fault.
The current law was set by his own government just a few months ago when the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act came into force. Check it out for yourself under section 148, rather incongruously crowbarred into the legislation.
It clearly states that ‘“reasonable force” is acceptable in the common law defence of defence of property’. This is the government’s own work, yet within months they deem their own laws to be unacceptable. What changed in the meantime? Did they suddenly realise there was political capital in bashing burglars? A couple of high-profile cases and they sense a chance to appease the masses. It’s policy decided by the polls and Grayling should be ashamed.
Does this proposal really clarify how much force can be used against intruders? Is ‘grossly disproportionate’ (the new tipping point for potential prosecution) easier to understand than simply ‘disproportionate’? Is it not possible this will confuse the public – and the courts even further about what is acceptable?
The lord chief justice was pretty clear that the law provides adequate protection to the householder when he spoke during his annual press conference last month. Reasonable force already took account, he said, of the panic and anxiety of the householder and the courts would respond accordingly. There really is no justification for any change in the law.
And so to the consequences. Burglars will inevitably get hurt. I don’t expect many hearts to bleed at that prospect (though do consider that roughly 30% of prisoners grew up in care homes, compared with 1% of the rest of the population – there must be some room for compassion). But what kind of Britain do we want to create? Do we really want one where householders are encouraged to use violence?
In Florida in February this year, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was fatally shot by a resident who had earlier told police Martin was acting suspiciously. The case raised questions about Florida’s ‘stand-your-ground’ law which states that a person may justifiably use force in self-defence when there is reasonable belief of an unlawful threat. Critics say the law gives the green light to people to shoot others first and then claim self-defence afterwards.
A taskforce examining the law said it was ‘confusing’ for homeowners.
There is still some distance before Grayling arrives at something similar in England and Wales, but the law is changing at such a rate that you wouldn’t rule it out. And let’s not pretend this will reduce the frequency of burglaries – indeed this only means the chilling prospect of intruders arming themselves in their own self-defence before entering someone’s home.
Of course, it is terrifying being burgled and the law has a duty to punish the offender. But placing that duty on householders is a dangerous and frightening prospect. There is a very good chance that Grayling’s law will turn an ordinary person into a killer. Even if the law deems that they are immune from prosecution, is that really the kind of society we want to live in?
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