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Crime: Homeowners’ Liability

Volume 727: debated on Tuesday 24 May 2011


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will review the rules on homeowners’ liability in the event of injury to intruders on private domestic property.

My Lords, the Government believe that the civil law provides effective protection to property owners and other victims of crime against possible claims for damages by those engaged in unlawful activity. We have no plans to review the law in this area.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Can he reconcile the contradictory advice given to homeowners, particularly in rural areas? In some areas, they are advised to lock up their lawnmowers and be very careful about their sheds, whereas in Surrey and Kent the police advise people that, whatever happens, they must not put any wire mesh on their garden sheds in case it injures a burglar.

I saw the report of that advice. All I can say is that it is an example of overcompensation. Certainly, putting wire mesh on a shed is not disproportionate. The law warns against disproportionate protection measures. The property owner has protection in law to protect their property proportionately.

Does the Minister see any reason to vary Section 329 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which provided that civil proceedings brought by a burglar could be brought only with the permission of the court? It is a defence for the householder to say that he believed that the claimant was about to commit an offence or that he was defending himself. Does the Minister see any reason to change that position?

No, my Lords. I believe that the party opposite can take credit for the Criminal Justice Act 2003 because, as my noble friend said, it included a test to make it more difficult for a person who has been convicted of an imprisonable offence to make a civil claim for damages unless what they had encountered was grossly disproportionate to the circumstances. It is interesting to note that, since the introduction of Section 329, we are not aware of any claims by criminals for trespass to the person succeeding.

Does the Minister agree that the starting point in dealing with burglars injured during the commission of an offence is that they are the author of their own misfortune?

Yes, and this is a good opportunity to emphasise from this Dispatch Box wise guidance that was given by the Director of Public Prosecutions in 2005, who is now my noble friend Lord Macdonald of River Glaven. He said:

“The law is on the side of householders … It is only in the most extreme circumstances that householders are prosecuted for violence against burglars”.

He goes on to say that householders,

“are entitled to use violence to protect themselves”,

and that,

“Indeed we routinely refuse to prosecute those reacting in the heat of the moment to finding intruders within their homes”.

Is my noble friend aware that some of the more ridiculous cases are stimulated by claims management companies and that there are recommendations about their activities in Lord Justice Jackson's report? Will he update the House as to where we are on the possible implementation of those proposals?

My Lords, my department will respond to Lord Justice Jackson's report shortly, but anyone who thinks that they can get a no-win no-fee prosecution on this basis will end up with no fee.

My Lords, is not the absurdity of the advice given by the police as outlined by my noble friend Lady Gardner a very good example of why we need elected police commissioners to reconnect with the public they are supposed to serve?

What a good question. While a Bill is before the House, that can be used in evidence. As I said at the beginning, this is a report of advice given by the Surrey police which, on reflection, they would probably think is not proportionate. In a case in Florida recently someone wired up their window frames to the electricity mains and electrocuted a burglar. That is disproportionate. Wire mesh on the windows is not.

My Lords, I am not surprised that the Minister did not answer the noble Lord’s question, because he gave the game away. He suggested that elected party political police commissioners will interfere in the day-to-day operations of the police force. That is why that Bill has to be defeated.

I will not be drawn into this. My noble friend was suggesting that a little common sense in these matters would be beneficial to the police and the public in general.

Does my noble friend recall that the Criminal Justice Bill 2003 was amended by your Lordships' House twice as often as any other Bill in the Government’s programme that year?

I was not aware of that but I have never been, certainly in the last 10 years, averse to sensible amendments being carried in this House.