Self-Defence in the Home: How Far is Too Far?

When it comes to self-defence against intruders in your home, how far can you take it within the law?

It’s just past midnight on a Wednesday. You’re in your late seventies. You’re retired, and very much tucked up in bed. It’s a little noisy outside, but you don’t mind all that much. That’s normal for London.

Just as you begin to feel the onset of a deep sleep, there’s an enormous crash. You jump out of bed to find a pair of intruders in your home. One runs upstairs to rummage through your belongings while the other, armed with a screwdriver, forces you into the kitchen.

You only really have two options:

a) Cooperate. Give them what they want and hope they don’t hurt you.
b) Stab them with a kitchen knife.

On Wednesday a 78-year-old resident of Hither Green in South London chose option b). After a “struggle had ensued in the kitchen” a police spokesperson said, one of the suspected burglars had “sustained a stab wound to the upper body”, which resulted in his death just a few hours later. The second burglar managed to escape.

The homeowner was arrested on suspicion of murder. Was this a justifiable act of self-defence or an overly excessive use of force?

Data taken from the Office for National Statistics

Reasonable Force?

The current law states that if a person “strikes an attacker in self-defence” they are lawfully able to, so long as it remains within the parameters of “reasonable force”.

The official website of the British government, Gov.uk, says that individuals are allowed to protect themselves “in the heat of the moment” and are permitted to use “an object as a weapon” if an intruder enters your property.

The article also states that “you don’t have to wait to be attacked before defending yourself in your home”. However, there is no specific definition of “reasonable force” and each situation is different from the next.

The amount of force permissible is dependent on the amount of fear felt and the severity of the threat toward your safety. The higher the threat level, the more force you’re able to use legally.

In their coverage of the Hither Green case mentioned above, the BBC reported that “if you have acted in reasonable self-defence, as described above, and the intruder dies you will still have acted lawfully”.

Hither Green in London where the incident took place. Photo by Matthew Black

Excessive Force?

There’s a thin line between ‘reasonable’ and ‘excessive’ force. This is complicated by the fact that what is deemed excessive in one case, could be perceived as perfectly reasonable in another.

If an intruder is carrying a knife for example, and you protect yourself with a gun, the argument could be made that excessive force is being used on your part.  In the Hither Green case, the burglar only had a screwdriver whereas the homeowner used a knife.

A London Metropolitan Police Constable spoke to The Versed to help us identify where self-defence ends and “excessive force” begins.

“In a court of law, a judge will always ask if the force was reasonable to the standards of a reasonable person. It’s a very subjective theory”.

She said that acting in the “moment” is key. Reaching for objects that are naturally around you for protection against intruders is generally seen to be within the law. However, anything verging on premeditation could potentially damage your case in court.

“If you’re sleeping with an iron bar under your pillow, a court of law could say ‘is that acceptable?’ My opinion may differ to yours and yours may differ to anybody else’s”. The argument here being that keeping a weapon under your pillow is an act of premeditation.

With regards to the Hither Green case, she said that if the man has been charged with murder it’s likely due to the fact that “someone’s decided along the line that the force that man used could be perceived as being out of line”.

As each case differs in a number of ways, from threat level, amount of fear, the weapons used, it’s always very difficult to clearly define an act of ‘self-defence’ from an act of ‘violence’. If you act within what you perceive to be reasonable at the time, however, chances are, you’re acting within the law.

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