Homeowners can kill burglars in self-defence, Government says

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Homeowners who confront burglars were told by the Government yesterday that they were entitled to kill in self-defence - and use guns and knives - to protect their family and property.

Homeowners who confront burglars were told by the Government yesterday that they were entitled to kill in self-defence - and use guns and knives - to protect their family and property.

They were reassured that they will not be prosecuted if they acted "honestly and instinctively" against intruders in the heat of the moment.

In advice issued yesterday, the Government sought to defuse the controversy over how much force people are entitled to wield in their own homes.

The Tories have called for the law to be strengthened to allow the use of all but "grossly disproportionate" force and polls have discovered the public believes the law is tilted in favour of burglars. Following a brief review of existing legislation, Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary, decided that it already gave law-abiding citizens enough powers but that it needed to be better explained.

The result was yesterday's leaflet, which will be distributed to libraries and police stations. It was produced by the Crown Prosecution Service and the Association of Chief Police Officers.

It told householders: "You are not expected to make fine judgments over the level of force you use in the heat of the moment. So long as you only do what you honestly and instinctively believe is necessary in the heat of the moment, that would be the strongest evidence of you acting lawfully and in self-defence."

It said that the more extreme the circumstances and the more frightened householders were, the more force they could lawfully use. But it warned they could still face the courts for using "excessive and gratuitous force".

Reinforcing the message, Tony Blair said: "Don't be in any doubt - you are entitled to defend yourself. And it is only in the most extreme circumstances that anyone is going to get prosecuted for attacking or killing a burglar in their own home."

Ken Macdonald, the Director of Public Prosecutions, said: "The key thing to bear in mind is that, as long as someone hasn't stepped over that line into retribution or revenge, it is quite difficult to perceive of a level of violence that would not be regarded as reasonable by a prosecutor. This is something the intruder brings on him or herself. I don't think we need to be too squeamish about the situation."

The publicity drive was marred by an apparent rift between ministers and Sir Ian Blair, the new Metropolitan Police Commissioner.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme he believed the Tories' proposed form of words would be "more useful" than the current legislation. He said: "Reasonableness is quite a difficult concept at 4 o'clock in the morning in your kitchen, whereas something as stark as 'grossly disproportionate' did seem to me to be clearer."

Three hours later, after hurried calls between the Home Office and Scotland Yard, Downing Street said: "He has now said he believes the guidelines are right and has now welcomed them."

Sir Ian insisted he was "comfortable" with new advice which promises a householder who fights back will only be prosecuted if he or she takes "very excessive" and "gratuitous" action. The Tories said the new guidance did nothing to tackle the "horrible confusion" over the existing legislation.

Seizing on Sir Ian's remarks, David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, said: "On the day this leaflet is published, it is highly embarrassing to the Home Secretary and Tony Blair that Britain's most senior policeman, like his predecessor, believes it does not go far enough and the law should change."

Victor Bates, a jeweller whose wife was shot dead by a raider, complained that the new guidelines would do little to help the ordinary citizen faced with intruders. Marian Bates was killed 16 months ago at the shop in Arnold, Nottinghamshire, that she had run for more than 30 years with her husband. Mr Bates argued it was impossible to define "reasonable force". He said: "How do you know what the man has got in his pocket when he comes in through that door and his intentions are obviously evil?"

WHAT CAN YOU DO?

What is reasonable force?

"What you honestly and instinctively believe is necessary in the heat of the moment ... This is still the case if you use something to hand as a weapon.

"As a general rule, the more extreme the circumstances and the fear felt, the more force you can lawfully use in self-defence."

Do I have to wait to be attacked?

"No, not if you are in your home and in fear for yourself or others."

What if the intruder dies?

"If you have acted in reasonable self-defence, as described above, and the intruder dies you will still have acted lawfully."

Instances in which you could be prosecuted

1. "Having knocked someone unconscious, you then decided to further hurt or kill them to punish them."

2. "You knew of an intended intruder and set a trap to hurt or kill them rather than involve the police."

What if I chase them as they run off?

"You are still allowed to use reasonable force to recover your property and make a citizen's arrest ... A rugby tackle or a single blow would probably be reasonable. Acting out of malice and revenge with the intent of inflicting punishment through injury or death would not."