What would you do if an intruder broke into your house? A guide to your rights

Nermin Oomer
Yahoo! News

Nearly half of UK householders keep a domestic item they could use as a weapon according to a new survey - and 66 per cent are not afraid to use it as self defence against an intruder in the event of a break-in. But what rights do you actually have to defend yourself in your own home? Yahoo! News investigates.

The case of Tony Martin first brought householders’ rights to defend themselves into the spotlight.
The Norfolk farmer was jailed for murder in 2000 after shooting and killing an intruder at his remote property. His sentence was reduced to manslaughter on appeal and he was released after three years. Martin’s story sparked a national debate about householders’ rights to protect themselves.

Since then the issue has been raised in Government a number of times as other cases have emerged. In 2011 businessman Vincent Cooke was arrested after fatally stabbing a burglar at his Cheshire home, but he wasn’t charged.
The same year 72-year-old Cecil Coley was also arrested for stabbing a burglar at his Manchester florist shop, who later died from his injuries. Again the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) decided not to prosecute.

In 2010, however, Omari Roberts, 22, was remanded in custody and charged with murder for stabbing a teenager who was ransacking his mother’s Nottinghamshire home. The charges were dropped at the last minute on the day the trial was due to open in court, but Roberts went through a 13-month ordeal where the prospect of a life sentence hung over him.

In 2009 businessman Munir Hussain was jailed for attacking a burglar who held him and his family hostage in his own home. He and his brother chased the burglar into a nearby garden and hit him with a cricket bat. Hussain was freed on appeal but his brother remained in prison.

A survey by Confused.com found that these people are not alone in taking action as two thirds of Britons say they would use a weapon to defend themselves against an intruder.

If the high profile cases have shown us anything it's that the outcomes have been varied to say the least.

So where does this leave householders?

The Government claims it has recently strengthened the law in favour of the householder.

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling, said: "I have always said we must be on the side of the law-abiding majority. That is why I have strengthened the law to give householders greater protection from intruders. Householders who act instinctively and honestly in self-defence are victims of crime and should be treated that way."

The new law means that someone who is confronted by a burglar and has reason to fear for their safety, or the safety of their family, and in the heat of the moment uses force that is reasonable in the circumstances but in the cold light of day seems disproportionate, will not be guilty of an offence. Force which is ‘grossly’ disproportionate is still not permitted.

The previous law stated that a person may use reasonable force in circumstances where he or she genuinely believed it to be for the purposes of self-defence, defence of another, defence of property, prevention of crime or lawful arrest.

With regard to the changes, the CPS and Association of Police Officers gives guidance about what is reasonable force. It reads "You are not expected to make fine judgments over the level of force you use in the heat of the moment so long as you only do what you honestly and instinctively believe is necessary. This is still the case if you use something to hand as a weapon."

In attempting to explain the definition of disproportionate force the guidance says: "Where you are defending yourself or others from intruders in your home, it might still be reasonable in the circumstances for you to use a degree of force that is subsequently considered to be disproportionate, perhaps if you are acting in extreme circumstances in the heat of the moment and don’t have a chance to think about exactly how much force would be necessary to repel the intruder: it might seem reasonable to you at the time but, with hindsight, your actions may seem disproportionate. The law will give you the benefit of the doubt in these circumstances."

With regard to grossly disproportionate force, the guidance says if action was ‘over the top’ or a calculated action of revenge or retribution, this might amount to grossly disproportionate force for which the law does not protect you.

In explaining the wording, Grayling told the BBC Today programme: "If you knock the burglar out cold and you then stick a knife in them, I regard that as grossly disproportionate."

Although the changes were made in an attempt to strengthen and clarify the rights of householders, according to the Government, the alterations have come in for some criticism with claims that actually there is little difference to the previous law, which some argue was sufficient.

Tony Martin’s appeal solicitor, James Saunders said: "The changes are more window dressing than substance. The position has always been that someone is entitled to defend themselves at home if they believe they are under attack and if what they’re doing is in proportion to the attack."

"The law is now a little more explicit. They’re saying they will now be more generous about decisions taken in the heat of the moment. But the fact is the law has always been generous to people who overreact."

Lord Beecham called the changes ‘a political stunt’. He said: "The changes were unnecessary. There have been very few cases where an individual has been arrested or prosecuted for defending themselves. The changes could result in more injury to the householder."

Civil rights group Liberty go further and say the new wording in the law could ‘encourage vigilante execution’. 

The Government’s own circular administered to legal practitioners and advisors prior to the change admits: "It is rare for householders to be confronted by intruders in their homes and even rarer for them to be arrested, prosecuted and convicted as a result of any force they used to protect themselves. When such cases do occur, the Government believes they can give rise to a public perception that the law is balanced in favour of the intruder."

These situations may be rare, but as we’ve seen they can occur and the Confused.com survey reveals that four in 10 burglary victims were in the house when the burglary occurred.

So is the law clear enough?

Civil rights think tank Civitas says that despite the changes there is still a grey area within the law and it’s calling for a more clear-cut stance.

Its director David Green said the organisation would argue for a system close to the US where there is no real limit to what you can do to defend yourself if you feel you are under threat on your own premises. He said the law in this country was still based on the test of what is reasonable and the police and courts should not be relied upon to administer the ‘reasonable’ test.

He said: "Burglars should not be there. You don’t know if someone has a concealed weapon. If you attack them to subdue them or drive them out of the premises you should not fear prosecution. Even if you kill someone on the premises that could be legitimate, but if you pursue them down the street it’s going too far. You can’t trust the police and the courts to administer the reasonable test. They’ve tried to clarify what reasonable means but it’s still part of a judgment which leaves too much discretion in the hands of the police and CPS."

Do you understand your rights as a householder? Is the law clear or strong enough? Share your comments below.