UK Conservatives Want Greater Legal Protection for Homeowners

July 7, 2008 - 8:02 PM

London ( - British Conservative leader William Hague called Wednesday for a change in British law to give greater legal protection for homeowners who confront burglars.

In a campaign speech ahead of next week's local government elections, Hague said a future Conservative government would re-balance the justice system "with a strong
presumption that the state will be on the side of people who protect their homes and their families against criminals."

He was speaking amid an outcry over the conviction of a 55-year-old farmer for shooting dead a teenage burglar who broke into his remote home in Norfolk county, eastern England.

Tony Martin also was convicted of wounding a second burglar with the intention of causing grievous bodily harm. Martin began a life sentence earlier this week.

Rural communities complained that police shortages in their areas left them particularly vulnerable to crime. Police have called for increased funding for outlying regions and, according to reports, ministers are planning to earmark more money for this purpose.

Reacting to Hague's remarks, the ruling Labor party said he had opportunistically seized on the Martin case ahead of the elections, while the Social Democrats accused him of "populism."

Hague told a town hall meeting in Warwickshire county that the murder conviction had led to "an explosion of anger and resentment among millions of law-abiding people who no longer feel the state is on their side."

"Vigilantes have no place in civilized society. But there is all the difference in the world between the career criminal who sets out deliberately to burgle a house and the terrified home owner who acts to protect himself and his home."

He said tougher sentences should be imposed on burglars, noting that the three men who broke into Martin's house had a total of 114 criminal convictions between them, from burglary and theft to assaulting a police officer.

Yet they got away with fines and community service or, occasionally, with short jail terms and early releases, freeing them to "terrorize rural communities" again.

"No wonder the public despair and the police ask what the point is of catching criminals when they just get released back on to the street," Hague said.

"Part of the blame lies with a liberal legal establishment that too often appears to put the concerns for the rights of criminals before the rights of millions of vulnerable people."

He said criminals should serve their full terms; automatic parole should be done away with; more secure centers should be opened for young offenders; and a "two strikes and you're out" rule should be extended to cover a wider range of offenses.

"These common sense policies are tough. Criminals won't like them; nor will some left-wing pressure groups. That is because they restore the proper balance between justice and a safe society, and because they are true to the instincts of a British people fed up with the failure of the courts and prisons to deal with persistent criminals."

Hague also called for an increase in the number of police.

"The next Conservative government will reverse Labor's cut in the number of police. We will also give the police the support and backing they need."

'Reasonable force'

UK law currently allows people to use reasonable force to protect their property. But what constitutes "reasonable force" depends on the circumstances, and for many people, the law needs to be clarified.

"The minds of householders across the country would be set at rest if our legislators could define with greater clarity the law which governs a citizen's right to defend his home and property," Norfolk Police Authority chairman Jim Wilson wrote in a letter published in a local newspaper.

Asked to elaborate on the law, the Law Society Wednesday sent documents which included a pronouncement on the principle of self-defense, arising from a 1971 appeal judgment:

"It is both good law and good sense that a man who is attacked may defend himself. It is both good law and common sense that he may do, but may only do, what is reasonably necessary. But everything will depend upon the particular facts and circumstances. Of these a jury can decide."

It says the defense holds good in cases where the person is defending property, but warns that if an attack is over and no more danger remains, then using force "by way of revenge or punishment" would be indefensible.

"If you think there are people coming in and you are in danger, then I think you are entitled to strike the first blow," Law Society president Robert explained.

"If you are looking as though you are acting reasonably then they [juries] tend to give you the benefit of the doubt.

"Clearly if you are in your bedroom and you hear somebody coming in and you hit them - that's probably going to be reasonable.

"But if you were to creep downstairs and go up behind somebody and they do not know you are there and you cave their skull in - that's not reasonable."

This was the Conservative leader's second speech in a week that has been slated as extreme by opponents. His earlier call for asylum-seekers to be held in secure centers during processing prompted charges that he was inflaming racist and xenophobic sentiment.

In his speech Wednesday Hague attempted to pre-empt criticism, saying that "politicians aren't doing their job if they don't listen and respond to the unprecedented public outcry" which greeted Martin's conviction and sentence.