The terrifying prospect of finding an intruder in your home is fortunately something few of us have to deal with. But with the news this month that 78 year old Richard Osborn-Brooks was arrested over the death of an alleged intruder, we revisit our 2010 articleÂ on what the law says you can do to defend yourself and your property.
The government says you can use â€˜reasonable forceâ€™ to protect yourself and others, if a crime is taking place inside your home.
This means you can lawfully protect yourself â€˜in the heat of the momentâ€™ (this includes using an object as a weapon) or prevent an intruder from running off (which includes tackling them to the ground). You donâ€™t need to wait to be attacked to defend yourself if you fear for your own safety or others.
Thereâ€™s no specific definition of â€˜reasonable forceâ€™ – it depends on the circumstances. If you only did what you honestly thought was necessary at the time, this would provide strong evidence that you acted within the law.
You donâ€™t have to wait to be attacked before defending yourself or others in your own home. However, you could be prosecuted if, for example, you carry on attacking the intruder even if youâ€™re no longer in danger or pre-plan a trap for someone, rather than involving the police.
So â€“ what do you do if you discover an intruder in your home?
Firstly â€“ call the police if you can.
What is ‘reasonable force’?
If you need to use â€˜reasonable forceâ€™, you must judge the extremity of the circumstances. Generally, the more extreme the circumstances, the more extreme the defence that is lawfully acceptable.
If the intruder dies?
If the intruder dies, you will still be considered as acting lawfully if you have acted in â€˜reasonableâ€™ self-defence and can use a weapon you have to hand. You will not have acted reasonably if you continue to use a weapon or kick an intruder once he is unconscious. If you are found to have acted with excessive or gratuitous force you will be prosecuted.
If the intruder runs away?
If the intruder runs away, you are not defending yourself or preventing a crime, but it is acceptable to attempt to stop them using reasonable force in order to make a citizenâ€™s arrest. Consider your own safety before attempting to catch a crook and make sure you act reasonably, and without malice or revenge.
The use of ‘disproportionate force’ might be given the benefit of the doubt if it is made under extreme circumstances but only if in self-defence or in the defence of others.
You will have no automatic right to innocence should you inflict death or injury on an intruder â€“ but the police have a duty to consider all facts before making a judgement.
The fact is that few householders have ever been prosecuted for actions resulting from the use of force against intruders, but there are exceptions.
Tony Martin was jailed in 1999 for shooting dead a 16 year old intruder as he fled, and Munir Hussain was jailed in 2008 for chasing and attacking an intruder with a cricket bat.
In 2016, Denby Collins was restrained by the homeowner he had burgled and handcuffed by police when they arrived. He soon became unresponsive and, despite medical attention, went into a coma.
Mr Collins’ family argued the law contravened Article 2 of the European Convention of Human Rights which protects a person’s right to life, but two High Court judges rejected their claim. The judges said that the law did not “give householders carte blanche in the degree of force they use against intruders in self-defence” and it was ultimately for a jury to determine whether a “householder’s action was reasonable in the circumstances as he believed them to be”.
In that case, the High Court agreed with the government that a disproportionate level of force can be used where a householder believes it to be necessary.
Detailed guidelines on self-defence and crime prevention has been published by the Crown Prosecution Service.