Self defence law: Your rights against intruders
How much do you know about self defence law? Consider the following scenario:
It’s the early hours of Saturday morning. The kids are all tucked up asleep in bed and you’re brushing your teeth before turning in for the night.
Suddenly, you hear a faint clattering coming from the kitchen. But everyone’s upstairs… even the dog is lying at the foot of your bed.
You cautiously tiptoe downstairs to see what’s going on. Feet padding softly on the carpet, you gently push the door through to the kitchen. Nothing.
You’re relieved — but to be safe you grab the biggest knife you have from the block and head round to inspect the rest of the house.
Going through to the lounge, you suddenly spot something out the corner of your eye. A man dressed all in black.
What do you do?
It’s a nightmare scenario that surely haunts many. It seems reasonable that in such an horrific situation we should be able to protect ourselves — but few of us know exactly how far we can go.
Taking a look at self defence law
There’s a public perception that UK law is balanced in favour of the intruder, and that we have a much weaker right to self defence than other countries. For example, in many states in the USA the ‘stand-your-ground’ self defence law means that anyone has a right to expect absolute safety in any place they have a right to be, and may use deadly force to repel an unlawful intruder.
In contrast, before 2013 there was no specific law in the UK that applied to self defence against intruders. Instead, there was a general test applied in any case of self defence, in or out of the home. Many thought that this was unfair, as we expect to have a greater right to safety and protection in our own homes.
The Crime and Courts Act 2013 changed things. Whereas before a homeowner was not allowed to use “disproportionate” force in self defence, the new law allowed this, as long as the force wasn’t “grossly disproportionate”.
This law was challenged by the family of a man who was left in a coma after he was caught allegedly intruding in a private home and put in a headlock. They said it wasn’t compatible with European human rights laws. However, the UK’s High Court overturned the challenge in January 2016.
Going beyond the legal jargon
This is all very well, but how does this legal speak apply in the real world? Following on from our situation above, here’s an example of things that could have happened, and whether they would get you in trouble. Note though that these are only examples and the outcome may be different in similar real life incidents.
The man runs at you shouting, brandishing a knife. You retaliate with your knife, severely injuring him.
The law states that you may use reasonable force ‘in the heat of the moment’ to protect yourself from a crime in your own home. This includes using an object as a weapon.
You run at the man brandishing a knife. You attack and severely injure him.
As long as you are genuinely in fear for yourself or others, the law does not require you to wait to be attacked before using defensive force yourself.
In the course of either of the above examples, the attacker is killed.
As long as the force you used was not excessive and did not go beyond what you did in the heat of the moment to protect yourself, then you would not likely be guilty of a crime. Indeed, there are incidents like this where the homeowner hasn’t even been prosecuted.
You initially stun the attacker, but you continue attacking him afterwards in order to get revenge.
In this case the amount of force you used may be considered ‘grossly disproportionate’. This is because the attacker was already stunned, meaning you were no longer in danger, so any additional force could not be justified.
You knew about the planned attack and set a series of cunning traps like in Home Alone. The attacker triggers one, resulting in injury.
If you knew about the attack then you should have alerted the police. This use of force is therefore seen as grossly disproportionate and not reasonable, so you will likely be prosecuted.
The attacker runs away with a bag full of your possessions. You run after him, tackling him to the ground, injuring him.
As the attacker is running away you are no longer in danger, so you cannot rely on self defence laws. This means that the same degree of force may not be seen as reasonable. However, you are still allowed to use reasonable force in order to recover your property. You may also restrain the intruder until the police arrive.
What will happen when the police arrive?
This will depend very much upon the circumstances.
The head of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has said that all incidents involving self defence law will be treated as swiftly and sympathetically as possible.
Where the intruder has received only minor injuries there will likely be no need to make an arrest.
However, in the case of death or very serious injury the situation becomes a lot more complicated, so you may be detained for the purposes of the investigation. The police may also need to conduct a forensic examination of your home.
Click here to see your rights upon arrest.
We realise that in the heat of an intensely frightening moment such as this, it might be hard to make a logical and measured response. After all, the self defence law exists for this very reason.
If you do find yourself facing an intruder your priority should be to phone the police as soon as you can. Do not ever put your own safety at risk unnecessarily.
Of course, preparing for an eventual intruder will help you deal with any potential incident – and no, we don’t mean setting Home Alone style traps!
The Verisure alarm system deters intruders by detecting a breach and sounding a high powered siren. This alerts you to an intruder as soon as possible. The system will also listen to and take pictures of your property, allowing our Alarm Response Centre to evaluate the situation and send guards if necessary.
Read more about how the Verisure smart alarm system prevents a break-in within 45 seconds.