Skip to main content

Householders (Protection of Property)

Volume 504: debated on Thursday 21 January 2010

11. What discussions she has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions on the policy of the Crown Prosecution Service in charging householders who have used force in cases of burglary. (312116)

The Attorney-General and I have regular meetings with the DPP, at which we discuss a range of issues within the terms of the protocol between the Law Officers and the prosecution departments that was published in July 2009.

The Solicitor-General must be aware that hardly a week goes by without some sort of report of a victim of burglary bizarrely being prosecuted. There is certainly a feeling of great injustice in the country, so will she give clearer guidance to the CPS when it considers prosecution?

I do not accept that hardly a week goes by, although obviously I am well aware of the cases that hit the headlines recently and some years ago. As a consequence of the earlier case in 2005, a joint statement was issued by the Association of Chief Police Officers and the CPS that made it very clear that a person is entitled to use force to resist a burglar. The current case has brought the matter forward again, but it has not really impacted on the very good advice contained in that statement.

A survey of prosecutions shows that in the 15 years between 1989 and 2004, only 11 people were charged with responding in any way violently to being burgled. As the hon. Gentleman says, such cases clearly occur more frequently than that, which suggests that the law is right overall, and deals with them sympathetically. In his judgment yesterday on the most recent case, the Lord Chief Justice said that it was not at all about a person defending himself after a burglary, as the burglary was long over before the violence that gave rise to the sentence took place.

Does my hon. and learned Friend accept my opinion that the law is right and that there must not be a change? Otherwise we would be putting property above life, and that is something that I hope our law will never accept.

Certainly, an appeal against conviction in the current case was refused. There is no suggestion in the thorough judgment from the Lord Chief Justice that he considers there to be anything wrong with the law. The barrister who defended this family also defended Tony Martin, and he said on the radio this morning that he thought that the law was right. To avoid doubt, I emphasise that the law allows for what was referred to in the case as a “moment of unexpected anguish”, when a person honestly and reasonably thinks that they are doing what is necessary. Members of the jury have to try to put themselves in that person’s position, and evaluate how high their feelings would be. Even then, they must ask whether, taking all that emotion into account, the response was reasonable. I suspect that the law is pretty accurate, and that juries have every opportunity to give as much credit as they want to the incredibly tense situations that people can find themselves in.

Given that the courts have shown that they can defend householders and understand the situations that arise, will the Solicitor-General continue to resist those siren voices who want the law rewritten? We have had enough criminal justice legislation as it is.

Some of the criminal justice legislation that has gone through the House has been extremely good. It has benefited victims of domestic violence and rape and improved conviction rates enormously, so one cannot sweep all sorts of criminal justice law up together and say that it is all a bad thing. However, I agree that we should resist any calls to change the law. That is simply not necessary, as I think that the courts deal with such cases quite properly.

Is it not absolute nonsense to suggest that the current law, which has been in existence for so long, is soft on burglars? The law is quite clear, as my hon. and learned Friend has said, and if one believes in the rule of law one should not try to change the existing position.

Yes, I do agree. The case of Palmer, which essentially set out in common law the principles that are now in statute, has been working since 1971 with very little complaint. In the two cases that have given the most cause for concern, the courts have made it clear—in both instances—that the violence happened after the burglary was over, and we do not allow that. That is breaking the rule of law, itself; it is revenge, not self-defence.

One aspect of the Hussain case that has escaped public attention is the way in which the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, and before that the Criminal Justice Act 2003, badly restricted the discretion of the sentencer. Judge Reddihough would have been more able to produce the sentence that the Court of Appeal produced yesterday had he not been hogtied by the Sentencing Guidelines Council, or the Sentencing Council. Will the Solicitor-General please discuss with her Government colleagues getting rid of the Sentencing Council, so that judges can sentence on the facts before them, rather than having to follow a template issued by other people elsewhere?

There is no template, as the hon. and learned Gentleman well knows. The judiciary have a discretion and they rightly exercise it, because they, at first instance, are the people who see the dramatis personae before them, and who can make a proper assessment of the absolute detail and the nature of the person. Judges have plenty of discretion, and in the judgment that I have read, the trial judge made no suggestion that he found himself hogtied—and the Lord Chief Justice certainly did not, either.