Comments by senior judges defending the right of homeowners to shoot at burglars could encourage more people to open fire on intruders, anti-gun campaigners warned last night.
Penal reformers also raised concerns that a ratcheting-up of rhetoric in courtrooms could result in a surge in numbers of offenders in Britain's overcrowded jails.
The row follows remarks by Judge Michael Pert as he sentenced a career criminal who was shot after he broke into a cottage in Leicestershire. "If you burgle a house in the country where the householder owns a legally-held shotgun, that is the chance you take. You cannot come to court and ask for a lighter sentence because of it," he said
Lord Judge, the Lord Chief Justice, intervened yesterday to say that homeowners could not be expected to act rationally when confronted by an intruder. The country's most senior judge said: "The householder is not in a position to exercise calm, cool, judgment. You're not calmly detached, you're probably very cross and you're probably very frightened, a mixture of both."
He added: "If your home is burgled and you're in there, you have the right to get rid of the burglar.
"Burglary of a home, whether it's a grand mansion or a very modest one up one down, is always an offence against property, but more importantly it is an offence against the person. You've got to put yourself in the position of the man or woman who has reacted to the presence of a burglar and has reacted with fury, with anxiety, with fear and with all the various different emotions which have been generated and has no time for calm reflection.
"This is your haven, this is your refuge, this is where you have the right to be safe. The burglar takes your property, but even if you're not at home... there is a sense of violation and it destroys peace of mind – and if your peace of mind in your home is destroyed you have lost something immensely precious.
"A predecessor of mine 400 years ago who said, 'Your home is your castle'. That's what he is reflecting on. This is the place where you pull up the drawbridge and the moat makes you safe. Your home is your safe place, so burglary is always serious."
Chris Grayling, the new Justice Secretary, welcomed the judge's words and hinted that crime victims could be given further rights of self defence, – a constant demand of Tory activists.
However, Gill Marshall-Andrews, the chair of the Gun Control Network, said she feared such remarks could lead more people to turn shotguns on intruders. "This kind of comment is likely to escalate gun use and encourage people to use their guns for self defence which wasn't the purpose for which licences are granted," she said.
She added that she did not believe that opening fire on a burglar was a proportionate form of self defence.
Andrew Neilson, the director of campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: "Britain is by and large not a country of such dangerousness that people feel compelled to carry guns and that should be welcomed by everyone. More generally, a hardening of rhetoric in the courts will inevitably have an impact on sentencing levels. The concern for the Government is that it does not have the resources to see prison numbers continue to rise."
The populist issue of how to give legal backing to "have a go heroes" – but without encouraging vigilantism – has preoccupied Labour and Tory Governments alike.
Shami Chakrabarti, director of Liberty, said: "The law is perfectly clear – it has always protected homeowners who use reasonable force in self-defence. It is politicians who have periodically played upon the public's understanding of this emotive issue, not judges."
Since the 1990s, most Home Secretaries and Justice Secretaries have bowed to pressure to deploy tougher language on law and order. Mr Grayling, who was promoted in this month's reshuffle, appears to be taking a similar approach – although allies insist he is not the right-wing hardliner of caricature and is a supporter of prison rehabilitation schemes.
After this week's sentencing of the Leicestershire burglars, Mr Grayling left no doubt where his sympathies lay. He said: "Being confronted by an intruder in your own home is terrifying, which is why the public should be in no doubt the law is on their side.
"We have already taken steps to clarify the law in this area but this is an important issue – one I have taken a keen interest in and am looking into further, as a matter of urgency."
Fresh guidance on the law on self-defence is set to come into force later this year, but Mr Grayling's comments signal that he is preparing to return to the subject again.
The Judges' verdicts: The legal debate
Mr Justice John Owen, jailing Tony Martin (19 April, 2000)
Burglary is a crime and a householder in his own home may think he is being reasonable. But he may not be being reasonable and it can have tragic consequences. The trial also serves to emphasise householders also have responsibilities.
Judge Shirley Anwyl, jailing Brett Osborn for killing intruder Wayne Halling (21 April, 2004)
It is clear that Halling was presenting no real danger to anyone but himself... you have accepted that you intended real serious injury. Your use of violence was not wholly unpremeditated in that you did equip yourself with at least one knife.
Judge Michael Pert, QC, jailing shot burglars Joshua O'Gorman and Daniel Mansell (26 Sep, 2012)
Being shot is not mitigation. If you burgle a house in the country where the householder owns a legally held shotgun, that is the chance you take. You cannot come to court and ask for a lighter sentence because of it.
Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge, at the Royal Courts of Justice (27 September, 2012)
The householder is entitled to use reasonable force to get rid of the burglar. The householder is not in a position to exercise calm, cool, judgment. You're not calmly detached, you're probably very cross and you're probably very frightened. When you're at home you want to feel safe, and in my view you're entitled to feel safe and secure. This is your haven, this is your refuge, this is where you have the right to be safe.Reuse content