What constitutes reasonable force? Still as clear as mud

22 Sep 2012

The contentious question of what an individual can legally do when protecting themselves, their property or other people rages on.

Earlier this month a Leicestershire couple Andy and Tracey Ferrie were told they would not face prosecution for shooting a burglar in their home, they had been the victims of a number of previous burglaries and legally owned the firearm used in the incident.


This case reopened the debate which began in 1999 when Tony Martin, also the victim of many burglaries used an illegally-held shotgun to shoot two perpetrators, killing one. On the 23rd of August 1999, Martin was charged with the murder of Fred Barras and attempted murder of Brendon Fearon. He was sentenced to life imprisonment, with a recommended minimum term of 8 years. This was later reduced to a manslaughter charge with a five year sentence. He was released in July 2003 after serving 3 years. Support for Martin was divided due to him having fired the fatal shot when Barras was attempting to escape from the property.

The Criminal law act 1967 states that ‘A person may use such force as is reasonable in the circumstances in the prevention of crime or in arresting offenders or suspects’, not exactly clear and subsequent attempts at clarification have not really been adequate either. The problem is that one person’s reasonable force would be another person’s excessive. Self defence is perhaps simpler to determine, if you feel your life is threatened then you are justified in doing whatever it takes to remove that threat. Your right to protect your property is much trickier which is why the Police have such difficulty in determining if they should arrest someone who apparently acted in self defence.

The case of Munir Hussain is perhaps an example of excessive force. On 3rd of September 2008, Mr Hussain, his wife and their children on returning to their home, were confronted by intruders. Mr Hussain and his sons were beaten and the family threatened. Samad Hussain managed to break free and raise the alarm. Munir chased one of the burglars from his home, he was joined by his brother, who was a neighbour, they caught Walid Salem and beat him severely causing a brain injury. Munir was sentenced to 30 months imprisonment and his brother Tokeer 39 months, both sentences were reduced to 1 and 2 years by the court of appeal. In the cold light of day most people would say Munir’s actions were overly violent, but in the heat of the moment, with adrenalin and anger coursing through you, who knows how any of us would act?

There seems to be a frightening increase in domestic burglaries; over 700,00 last year, up 14%. More worrying is that some of these crimes are committed, not by the opportunist burglar but by a gang, in so called ‘home invasions’ coupled with the cuts in Police numbers one can only see the problem increasing.

It appears you may not be safe even whilst doing your job. In February 2009 a truck driver was attacked on an industrial estate in Warwickshire by Three men attempting to steal his lorry. One of the men had a knife which the truck driver turned on him, fatally injuring him. The CPS decided not to prosecute accepting the driver acted in self defence.

In conclusion, status quo seems to be the only option. Decisions must continue to be made on a case by case basis. The issue is too fraught for blanket decision making. The young, fit and able can, if they choose, defend themselves and their property as they see fit. The elderly and less able though? This opens a debate for another time on Police numbers and the responsibility of the force.

By Vicky Lindon

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