Death of intruder rekindles debate over self-defence law

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The Independent Online

Legal Affairs Correspondent

Police forces are expected to be advised by the Crown Prosecution Service not to rush into pressing charges against "have-a-go-heroes" who hit out in self-defence. The issue was highlighted again over the weekend by the latest in a series of incidents in which injuries have been caused while people were defending their property.

On Saturday, Niklos Baungartner, 53, grappled with a 22-year-old man he found in his home near Derby. The struggle moved to the front garden where, according to police, Mr Baungartner tried vainly to attract help from passing motorists.

As the intruder lay on the ground, Mr Baungartner ran to a neighbour and raised the alarm. He was treated for a broken wrist, heavy bruising and shock, but the suspected burglar, named as Robert Ingham, died in hospital.

Police yesterday interviewed Mr Baungartner in the presence of his lawyer, but stressed that he was not under arrest and said it would be several days before they could decide whether he would face charges.

The law allows the use of "reasonable force" to defend person or property, or to prevent a crime. There have been widely differing views among judges, politicians and ordinary people about the definition of "reasonable", and who is the victim. Over the years, case law has defined that it may be reasonable to make a pre-emptive strike in self-defence. New guidelines for police are being drawn up after a review by the CPS requested late last year by the Home Secretary, Michael Howard.

Mr Howard had already given a clear steer to the CPS and the police in November when he told the Police Superintendents' Association that "the impression is sometimes given that the victim is treated more harshly than the villain". He said he was particularly worried by cases in which the police charged people after they had defended themselves, only for the charges to be dropped later.

The new guidelines are part of an attempt to reduce as far as possible regional variations in charging practice for assaults. Some forces prosecute more than others and some press for actual bodily harm rather than common assault.

The case which brought the "reasonable force" debate to national headlines arose after Ted Newbury, an 82-year-old from Ilkeston, Derbyshire, fired a 12-bore shotgun towards a man who was trying to break into the shed on his allotment. A jury acquitted him of wounding, but the intruder then sued the pensioner for damages, and was awarded pounds 4,000 - a decision upheld by the Court of Appeal, which said the force had exceeded reasonable limits.

In November last year, a jury at Teesside Crown Court took four minutes to clear a man who had seen a thief escape into some trees and fired a shotgun towards them. Some of the pellets hit the thief.