Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Much ado about nothing

For months now, we've been assailed from all corners by the legal threat that hangs over any homeowner who tries to defend himself from the army of burglars and robbers besieging our homes.

Now, police and the CPS have published advice on what reasonable force actually means. Joshua Rozenberg provides this cogent summary of the law, which is laid down in the Criminal Justice Act 1967, section 3, which provides that

a person may use such force as is reasonable in the circumstances in the prevention of crime, or in the effecting or assisting in the lawful arrest of offenders or suspected offenders, or of persons unlawfully at large

This section of the law covers everything - even to the point where the police take the decision to shoot somebody. It may seem vague and overly general to encompass all the elements of self-defence and the use of force in the simple word 'reasonable', but that very vagueness is the secret of the law's flexibility.

The idea of changing the law to try and cover all the possible definitions of self-defence was always flawed. In any case, the CPS report that they can only find eleven cases in fifteen years of householders actually being prosecuted for 'self-defence' and only five cases where a guilty verdict was returned. As the BBC points out, one of those involved a man who lay in wait for an intruder, beat him up, threw him into a pit and set fire to him. Not even the UKIP are proposing this - yet.

The police won't want to push prosecutions for genuine cases of self-defence and the CPS know perfectly well that a jury won't convict - don't forget that they are only supposed to pursue cases with a reasonable chance of obtaining a conviction.

One thing this does do - good for the Tories - is keep the issue of crime front and centre, just where they like it. Let's not forget the fact that burglary rates are dropping and are at their lowest for a decade. As Nick Ross keeps telling us - don't have nightmares, these sort of crimes are very rare.

As in so many things, this is an unnecessary public fuss about a tiny problem.

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