Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Violent Victims

The Conservative Party has pledged to review the rights of householders to use violence to protect their property. As it stands, the law allows householders to use reasonable force and it is at the court's discretion to judge what was reasonable or not. Shadow Home Secretary, Chris Grayling, suggested that only those using "grossly disproportionate" force should be punished.
A Today Programme showed that a law that allowed home owners to use "any means to defend their home from intruders" was the most popular proposal in their interactive poll, with 26000 votes. (More on this here.) Maybe this inspired the Tory initiative, or perhaps it was the recent news that Munir Hassain was jailed last week for attacking an armed burglar who had tied up and threatened his family. Andrew Marr quizzed Alan Johnson on this during his Sunday morning show but I was disappointed that they didn't get to the nub of the case: Munir and his brother had chased the attacker down the road and continued to beat him repeatedly with a cricket bat and hockey stick, resulting in brain damage; the court, based on witness testimony, thought it was a horrific attack and not a forceful arrest. The burglar is too badly injured to stand trial for his crimes.
So, what of referenda on such issues? Could there be a rational debate on this issue?
Most people can easily empathise with other householders but not with burglars, thank goodness. If flight or fight are the natural reactions then most people realise that when they are attacked in their homes, their "castles", they may have no natural place to run away to, so the fight response feels right. And many conscientious people would consider it their duty as citizens to chase and arrest a burglar by using the type of force the police would use to bring them to justice. The debate would probably be both deeply emotional and rational. It would surely involve the police, judiciary and former criminals and would likely review this recent case and many others.
It seems to me that our current law, with its vague "reasonable force", disempowers victims trying to defend themselves and their property. A debate that involves everyone may not only clarify what is reasonable but could enhance citizens sense of empowerment in more ways than one.
More from the Guardian here.

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