In recent decades, there have been some very high-profile burglary cases in UK laws involving residential security. With respect to householders and the criminal law of self-defence, particular cases involving weapons have placed the issue of self-defence during a burglary in the spotlight. But at first glance, the results of these cases may appear confusing. For example, in the case of R v Martin (2002), the homeowner’s claim of self-defence was rejected, and he was charged with manslaughter after shooting an intruder in the back (with an illegally-held shotgun). But in 2012, the CPS decided not to charge a couple after the man shot at two intruders with his legally-held shotgun.
Most recently and more notably due to the press coverage and divided public opinion, was the Hither Green Burglar stabbing; where a pensioner was attacked and stabbed in his own home but managed to overpower the burglar and stab him with a kitchen knife in self-defence. The burglar later died in hospital, and the 78-year-old homeowner was arrested on suspicion of murder. He was eventually released and the charges dropped, but it caused untold misery to him, his family and neighbours, causing national outrage and opinion. The coroner ruled the killing as lawful.
So, where does the law stand on this? And what about instances where a weapon is involved? This article provides a guide to the laws you need to know to legally defend yourself and your family from a burglar.
The law on burglary is set out in Section 9 of the Theft Act 1968. It states that a burglary has been committed when an individual enters a building or part of a building as a trespasser, and then does one of the following:
It’s in these scenarios where the law in this article is relevant and will apply.
The rules on reasonable force apply to burglary as they do for criminal law in general, and if you read our article on the topic of Citizens Arrests then you’ll be familiar with the concept. Basically; the law does not expect that an individual, at the time of a very frightening event such as a burglary, to be able to rationally weigh up the amount of force that should be used to prevent a crime. Instead, a subjective approach is taken, and as long as the individual only does what they honestly and instinctively believe is necessary in the heat of the moment, then their actions will be regarded as self-defence. This includes the use of an object as a weapon too.
As well as this, the law also acknowledges that in the heat of the moment, sometimes an individual may use force that while at the time was honestly believed to be necessary, on reflection was actually disproportionate. The law appreciates that this may not have been done with any particular malicious intention and therefore gives the individual the ‘benefit of the doubt’ in these situations. However, disproportionate force is only acceptable when being carried out to protect yourself or other people – it cannot be used to protect property.
If an individual’s actions are deemed to be grossly disproportionate, then the law does not allow a defence of self-defence, and the individual will most likely be charged for a crime of their own. An example of grossly disproportionate force would be to repeatedly hit an intruder after knocking them unconscious. But it is important to reiterate that a judgement on the reasonableness of force is made from the perspective of the individual defending themselves, and so it is possible for the intruder to be killed and for the force to still be deemed as reasonable. The outcome of the force does not determine whether it was reasonable or not!
If an individual is in their own home and they honestly fear for the safety of themselves or others, then it is not necessary to wait to be attacked. However, setting up or pre-planning traps is not a legal excuse, and if there is ever a situation in which this is believed to be necessary, then the police should be informed instead – The famous scene in Home Alone may come to mind here but as inventive and clever as Kevin’s traps may be, the law will not allow them!
If force is used in the process of chasing an intruder away, then it may jeopardise an individual’s claim of self-defence. This is because self-defence is only available when the intruder is a threat – if the intruder is essentially fleeing, then it would be hard to argue that they remained a threat to the occupants. Perhaps this is where the courts found a reason to charge in the case of R v Martin; because the intruder was shot in the back, it suggests he was running away from the property rather than posing a threat to the person inside it, and therefore the shooting was not carried out in self-defence.
That said, force can sometimes still be reasonable when chasing the intruder and this would be when carrying out a Citizen’s Arrest. An individual is well within their rights to use appropriate force in order to either: recover stolen property from the intruder, or to apprehend them so they can be detained and arrested by the police. In these situations, the Crown Prosecution Service state that a ‘single blow or a rugby tackle’ would most likely be deemed as reasonable in the circumstances. Using force as a form of revenge or retribution, on the other hand, would not be reasonable. Again, for a more detailed explanation, please read our previous article on Citizen’s Arrests.
Hopefully, you now have all the information you need to feel reassured that your actions, if reasonable, are unlikely to be viewed negatively in court. Homes are very personal, and the law definitely appreciates the strong desire that people have to protect themselves. Whilst hopefully this information is never actually put into practice, at least you now know to what extent you can defend yourself, your family and home from intruders.
For expert tips on how to secure your home from burglars, please read our Home Security article.
Westminster Security provides residential security services in London, throughout the UK, Europe and Worldwide.