Self-defence in the UK

I wrote earlier about the pernicious and dishonest campaign by the London Daily Telegraph to scare people into thinking that self-defence against burglars was unlawful. To correct this misinformation the Crown Prosecution Service has issued a statement detailing what the law really says:

Does the law protect me? What is “reasonable force”?
Anyone can use reasonable force to protect themselves or others, or to carry out an arrest or to prevent crime. You are not expected to make fine judgements 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 in the heat of the moment, that would be the strongest evidence of you acting lawfully and in self defence. This is still the case if you use something to hand as a weapon.

As a general rule, the more extreme the circumstances and the fear felt, the more force you can lawfully use in self-defence.

Do I have to wait to be attacked?
No, not if you are in your own home and in fear for yourself or others. In those circumstances the law does not require you to wait to be attacked before using defensive force yourself.

What if the intruder dies?
If you have acted in reasonable self-defence, as described above, and the intruder dies you will still have acted lawfully. Indeed, there are several such cases where the householder has not been prosecuted. However, if, for example:

  • having knocked someone unconscious, you then decided to further hurt or kill them to punish them; or
  • you knew of an intended intruder and set a trap to hurt or to kill them rather than involve the police,

you would be acting with very excessive and gratuitous force and could be prosecuted.

I have listed several cases (and their outcomes) where burglars have been killed here. (Hat tip Agricola.)

Comments

  1. #1 Chris Lightfoot
    February 3, 2005

    See also this article in the Telegraph, accompanied by a useful illustration. For once, both are basically accurate.

    (Links via Matthew Turner and Dave Weeden.)

  2. #2 Bishop Hill
    February 3, 2005

    I must say I found your post from last year rather more informative than the Government guidance. The general principle that shooting/stabbing someone in the back is a no-no seems sound, although no doubt if one puts one’s mind to it there are some circumstances in which it would still be reasonable.

    A question: If I hear an intruder and go downstairs is it reasonable to shoot/hit them without turning on the lights? My thought is that it would be unreasonable to expect an old lady to demonstrate to the intruder that they were weak or infirm, and therefore it might be seen as reasonable.

  3. #3 Bishop Hill
    February 3, 2005

    I must say I found your post from last year rather more informative than the Government guidance. The general principle that shooting/stabbing someone in the back is a no-no seems sound, although no doubt if one puts one’s mind to it there are some circumstances in which it would still be reasonable.

    A question: If I hear an intruder and go downstairs is it reasonable to shoot/hit them without turning on the lights? My thought is that it would be unreasonable to expect an old lady to demonstrate to the intruder that they were weak or infirm, and therefore it might be seen as reasonable.

  4. #4 Agricola
    February 3, 2005

    Bishop Hill – yes, it would be if you were genuinely scared that you were going to get attacked. Of course, that was what Martin claimed happened (that he was coming downstairs and was blinded by a torch) – unfortunately this bore little resemblance to the truth.

    thanks tim!

  5. #5 Eli Rabett
    February 3, 2005

    I thought it was always a common law principle that you could not shoot a burglar leaving your house.

  6. #6 Terry Josiah
    February 3, 2005

    You wrote,
    “…about the pernicious and dishonest campaign by the London Daily Telegraph to scare people into thinking that self-defence against burglars was unlawful. To correct this misinformation the Crown Prosecution Service has issued a statement detailing what the law really says: ”
    Now why would the Telegraph do that? Especially today, when you can access so many others sources by the internet?
    If self defense is legal why are there questions and doubts, so much so that a newspaper responds to it with complete lies?
    Why does the Crown Prosecution service feel a need to issue a statement defining self defense? Common sense says in a civilized society there would be no need to, and there isn’t.
    A decent, law abiding citzen would not inflicte more punishement then necessary because that is the definition of law abiding.
    There are plenty of examples, I have read them and I have seen it during the Los Angeles riots. So much so, there is no need to give an example.
    Thank you Tim, your very posting contradicts your assertion.
    Self defense in a civilized society needs no explanation, never mind be an issue.

  7. #7 Nabakov
    February 3, 2005

    “..now why would the Telegraph do that?”

    “…that a newspaper responds to it with complete lies?”

    Wait till you hear the tooth fairy doesn’t exist. That’ll be another shock to your system.

    “Why does the Crown Prosecution service feel a need to issue a statement defining self defense?”

    I dunno. Perhaps because some media outlets were spreading disinformation?

    “Common sense says in a civilized society there would be no need to, and there isn’t.”

    Common sense is not quite as common as you think. That’s why we have laws, and courts, and people with big sticks and guns and nasty places to put bad people, all paid for from the money your daddy and mummy make so you can sleep soundly at night.

    PS: Don’t let the bedbugs bite!

  8. #8 Agricola
    February 3, 2005

    Terry – why is it some people desperately want to bury their heads in the sand? THE TELEGRAPH TRIED TO CONVINCE PEOPLE THEY HAD NO RIGHT TO SELF DEFENCE. THEY LIED. THIS PROVES THEY LIED. UK CITIZENS HAVE ALWAYS HAD THAT RIGHT. Please at least acknowledge the above.

  9. #9 Bishop Hill
    February 3, 2005

    Agricola:
    Does this
    http://www.economist.com/displaystory.cfm?story_id=2878093
    suggest otherwise?

    Obviously we don’t want to jump to conclusions without knowing all the facts of the case, but it does appear that a jury might not see things as you do. This man used something to hand as a weapon which is allowed according to the current guidelines. We can assume therefore that this is not what was objected to. Was it because he switched off the lights? Or perhaps the man was leaving the premises at the time.

    Perhaps someone who knows more about the case could enlighten us?

  10. #10 Agricola
    February 4, 2005

    Bishop – I dont see what point you are making, in that case Henrique (who was the victim, the trial was of the person who broke into his flat) was rewarded by the judge for detaining the burglar. If anything, that proves the case that the law has always been the same, its only the papers that tried to pervert it.

  11. #11 Steve
    February 4, 2005

    Just to follow up on Agricola’s comment (for those who didn’t click through the link), a man clocked a burglar with a bottle of wine and was given five hundred pounds for his derringdo. In what possible way does this suggest that self-defense is illegal in the UK, Bishop?

  12. #12 Simon
    February 4, 2005

    Bishop did you read the article?

  13. #13 Carleton Wu
    February 4, 2005

    Terry,
    Why do you insist on trying to figure out the truth about self-defense using secondhand sources, deductions, and speculations about motive (ie ‘why did the Telegraph do it?’) when Tim has already provided primary sources that demonstrate the truth of the matter in black and white?
    As for your complete BS about not writing things down, I have no idea where you’ve been for the last 800 years or so, but we in Western society have become quite fond of codifying laws so that everyone knows where they stand…
    So, since the official statement has in your estimation added to the ambiguity, would we somehow be better off without it? Would things be less ambiguous? Because that seems to be your argument, incoherent as it is.

    Also n.b., you seem to be arguing that the Telegraph couldn’t print a bunch of lies bc no one would buy them if they were easily disproved. However, you have yourself demonstrated that even official statements on the matter will not be believed by those such as yourself- ergo, your thesis disproves itself.
    If the Telegraph printed a story that the government was dumping nuclear waste into the Thames, and the government denied it and proved their case, would you then conclude that there must be something to it, because otherwise the Telegraph wouldn’t have printed something so easily debunkable? That, in a civilized society, no one would dump waste in the river, so the fact that the Telegraph brought it up means that it must be occurring?

    Smarter monkeys, please.

  14. #14 Ian Gould
    February 4, 2005

    Perhaps someone with a better knowledge of the British media can remind me of something: was it the Telegraph that recently lost a defamation case because they falsely accused a left-wing MP of taking bribes from Saddam Hussein? Or were they the ones who published the fake abuse pictures?

  15. #15 Carleton Wu
    February 4, 2005

    Ian,
    Good call! I hadn’t thought of that. As far as Galloway is concerned, it is indeed the same Telegraph.
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/4061165.stm
    The abuse photos were the Daily Mirror, tho.

    That’s much better than my hypothetical. I guess Galloway is guilty after all, now that he’s been proven to be innocent. Of course, in a civilized society, we’d just know whether he was or not.

  16. #16 dearieme
    February 4, 2005

    I was mugged once, but suppose it had happened at home. He tried to stick his knife in my chest, but I was too quick and got it off him. He took a pace back then turned his back and walked another pace or two away. I was still too astonished to do anything intelligent. He suddenly swung round, leapt forward and hit me over the head with a club which gave him a much longer reach than I had with his knife. The blow meant that I could no longer see anything in focus. I ran. But, with hindsight, I should have been much better off attacking him before he had freed his club for the second attack. Now, what would the law say if I had? Does it realy say that I must risk my life by leaving him alone in hopes that he doesn’t have a second weapon, or won’t pick one up? If so, it is an ass.

  17. #17 dsquared
    February 4, 2005

    Since you were outside and able to run, the law would say that you should have run and would not be on your side if you attacked someone. If you were in your house then you would have been allowed to incapacitate your attacker.

  18. #18 Bishop Hill
    February 5, 2005

    My mistake chaps – reading in a hurry!

  19. #19 dearieme
    February 5, 2005

    Even running would have, had I but known it, left me exposed to a blow from behind with the club. Once the mugger had declared war on me by threat followed by attack, it would surely be sensible to allow me to defend myself by any means available, until I can have confidence that I am safe? In other words, if I get him on the ground with my foot on his throat, I should not be allowed to torture him. But until I have got him in that state or the equivalent, it would be wiser for the law to declare that he gave up his rights by choosing his actions.

  20. #20 Ian Gould
    February 6, 2005

    Dearieme:

    One of the cases of British “self-defence” championed by the US pro-gun lobby involved a drug dealer who was robbed in his apartment then as the thieves were leaving pulled out a sword and attacked them from behind in the hall-way outside his apartment in order to recover the money they had stolen.

    I’d suggest that that comes pretty close to your “unconscious on the ground” test.

  21. #21 liberal
    February 6, 2005

    What would the law say about the case in Texas a few years ago?

    In which a Japanese exchange student knocked on the door of a house with a toy gun in his hand. He was going to a Halloween party, and he was at the wrong address by mistake.

    The couple inside got scared and eventually the husband opened the door and shot him dead.

    They always had the opportunity to leave the door closed and call the cops.

    IIRC they were acquitted of manslaughter or whatever charge was brought against them.

  22. #22 dearieme
    February 8, 2005

    liberal; fair enough, but “calling the cops” doesn’t work in Britain any more.

  23. #23 Ian Gould
    February 9, 2005

    Dearieme, would you care to elaborate on that statement? Incidentally, do you live in Britain?

  24. #24 Eli Rabett
    February 9, 2005

    Liberal AFAIK, it was Louisiana

  25. #25 liberal
    February 9, 2005

    Right, just googled, it was Louisiana. Student’s name was Yoshi Hattori. Actually, he didn’t have a toy gun; the object was a camera the shooter thought was a gun.

  26. #26 liberal
    February 9, 2005

    Looks like he was found innocent of manslaughter charges.

    This is something that bothers me about the standards above:

    So long as you only do what you honestly and instinctively believe is necessary in the heat of the moment, that would be the strongest evidence of you acting lawfully and in selfdefence.

    Shouldn’t the standard be whether the threat really is a threat by some “what would a typical person think” standard? Otherwise a paranoid nutjob could gun people done and be found innocent.

    Also, what about “you may use deadly force only if shown deadly force”?

  27. #27 dearieme
    February 9, 2005

    Ian Gould: (2) yes. (1) endless tales in the press of people calling the police and their saying they’ll be along a week next Tuesday, and absence of significant anecdotes to the contrary in my circle of acqaintance. Mind you, last time I called the police, two strapping lads were along in a trice. But then I had reported a gunshot.

  28. #28 liberal
    February 9, 2005

    IIRC the shooter lost a (presumably wrongful death) civil suit and had to pay up $650,000 (don’t have strong verification of the last).

  29. #29 Ian Gould
    February 10, 2005

    Dearieme: “Police show up on time and everything ends peacably” doesn’t make a good story. For at least the last decade, crime statistics have been going down but people’s perception of the level of threat from crime has been goign up in surveys.

  30. #30 dearieme
    February 10, 2005

    Ian Gould: Under the last Conservative govt, people were becoming distinctly sceptical about stats. Under Toni, they have become entirely cynical, I think. Twice in the last few months, arms of govt have published figures which proved to be wrong. “We didn’t claim our list was accurate” is the wonderful defence. WMD, thinks Joe Public.