Despite operating outside of the law, burglars are still protected by it. So what rights do householders actually have against intruders?
Equal Rights for Householders and Intruders?
If a burglar breaks into your home with intent to steal then you might expect to be able to use whatever force necessary to defend your family and your home. Unfortunately the law is not so unequivocal in its support of your actions.
Despite operating outside of the law, burglars are still protected by it. By breaking into someone’s private home they are not entering into a lawless vacuum – there is no licence to kill burglars. If householders use any more than ‘reasonable force’ to defend themselves against intruders then they are liable for prosecution.
The media have used instances in which householders have been punished for using excessive force to suggest the law doesn’t allow householders to protect themselves, and law-breaking burglars have as many rights as law-abiding citizens.
One particular source of debate surrounds the term ‘reasonable force’, which has been seen as difficult to define. It has been argued that if a householder is faced with a threatening intruder then they shouldn’t have to fret about what level of force they are allowed to use to defend themselves. This has no doubt led to many residents feeling even more uneasy about the prospect of an unwelcome intruder.
In truth, you are not expected to make precise judgements over the level of force to use in the heat of the moment. As long as you only do what you honestly and instinctively believe is appropriate then you would be judged as having acted lawfully and in self-defence, and as such receive the full protection of the law. This would be regardless of whether you used something to hand as a weapon or how badly affected the intruder was by your defensive actions.
For instance, if the intruder dies as a result of your actions but you still acted in reasonable self-defence then you would still have acted within the law. There have been numerous such instances where the householder has not been prosecuted.
Although the high-profile coverage given to certain cases where householders have been punished for defending their property have helped to give the impression that this is a common problem, very few residents have actually been prosecuted as a result of the use of force they have used against intruders.
More Than Reasonable Force?
Instances where householders have fallen foul of the law are typically when excessive or gratuitous force has been applied, when they have inflicted punishment out of malice and revenge, when their actions have been premeditated – such as in setting a trap for an expected burglar rather than phone the police – or when the intruder has been attacked as they have attempted to flee.
With regards to the latter instance, if you act against an intruder that is attempting to escape then you are no longer acting in self-defence and so the same level of force is not seen as being reasonable. Nevertheless, you are still allowed to use reasonable force to recover any stolen items or make a citizen’s arrest.