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Volume 717: debated on Thursday 25 February 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they plan to change the law on self-defence following recent cases.

My Lords, the Government strongly support the right of members of the public to defend themselves, others and their property with reasonable force. Under the law as it stands, a person is entitled to use reasonable force in self-defence, to protect another person or property, to prevent crime or to assist in the lawful arrest of a criminal. The Government have no plans to change the law on self-defence. The law is already in the right place and is working well.

I thank my noble friend for that clear Answer. Does he agree that citizens who intervene to prevent anti-social behaviour should generally be applauded and not condemned, but that to change the law to allow disproportionate force—as suggested by the Opposition—would clearly cause vigilantism and undermine the rule of law? Does he agree that all that is required is a lighter touch by the police and prosecuting authorities, with perhaps more discretion allowed to judges to do justice in each individual case?

Yes, I agree with my noble friend. Of course we strongly support the right of law-abiding people to defend themselves, their families and property with reasonable force, but it is important that the law is clear and accessible, as people must rely on this law in very difficult and stressful circumstances. We believe that the law is rightly and firmly weighted in favour of the victim. For example, there are very few prosecutions of householders for acts of violence committed against intruders, and obviously they take place only when the violence was extreme and completely disproportionate.

My Lords, I welcome the Minister's Answer that there is no intention to change the law. Does he agree that the law of self-defence is well understood by the courts and by juries, flowing from the resonant words of Lord Morris of Borth-y-Gest, whom many of us have quoted—that in a moment of stress you cannot to a nicety judge the precise amount of force to be used, and that due regard must be given to this by juries?

I absolutely agree with the noble and learned Lord, who speaks with great experience as a former Attorney-General and a leading lawyer. He knows that the practitioners in this field oppose a change in the law. The chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, Mr Paul Mendelle QC, is reported as saying:

“The law on self-defence works well and has done for years. The balance is properly struck between prosecution and defence and it is easily understood by juries”.

I say one thing with certainty: the dog will not be prosecuted. I say something else with almost equal certainty: nor will the householder.

In view of the answer to the previous question, does the position remain the same as when we debated the issue of intruders and burglars years ago, when the late Lord Hailsham said that it was up to you to keep your path in good condition because you would be liable if the burglar tripped and broke his leg? However, he went further and said that if you saw him climbing up to your window on a ladder, you were not obliged to tell him that a rung was faulty. Is the situation the same?

My Lords, we on these Benches entirely agree with the way that the Minister has expressed the position, namely that there is a fair balance in the criminal law as it stands and no need for reform. Has the Minister noticed that so far in this short debate, the Official Opposition have not made clear their position? Does he agree that if the Official Opposition were in government and sought to change the law in the way suggested, they would run up squarely against the European Convention on Human Rights and would find themselves in grave danger of violating the rights of the individual? Finally, as far as concerns civil law, will the Minister tell the House what has happened to the assurance given on 20 October by the noble Lord, Lord Brett, that he would consult the police about the misuse of Section 239 of the Criminal Justice Act, which was raised by the Court of Appeal in the Adorian case?

I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving me advance notice of the second point. The consultation has not yet taken place. I will talk to my noble friend and to the Home Office about that after this Question Time. As far as concerns the first part of the question, the position of the Official Opposition is not clear at all. They would be well advised in our view, and in the view of practitioners in the field, to leave the matter alone. It is not an issue to play politics with.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is something unattractive about newspapers and some elected politicians who speak of the jury system as the holy grail of our criminal justice system on one hand, and then complain about jury verdicts when people who plead self-defence have been convicted on the other? Does he agree that the exercise of prosecutorial discretion and the good sense of the jury is a real protection for individuals in these cases?

It certainly is a real protection. Prosecutorial discretion is an important part of that, but the jury system is as well and juries in these cases nearly always get them right.