William Hague's campaign for new laws in response to the jailing of the Norfolk farmer Tony Martin suffered a setback yesterday when the Director of Public Prosecutions said there was no need for fresh legislation.
David Calvert-Smith said that in nearly all cases where householders used self-defence to protect themselves and their property, the legal system already operated in their favour. He told the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee: "I believe that the test the courts have set over the years has taken full account of the very human situation that people find themselves in, and that we can be trusted only to put cases before the court where a jury is likely to find the force used deliberately on a burglar was disproportionate.
"I don't think that the law is unfairly biased in one way or the other."
Although he said he was not referring directly to the Martin case, Labour seized on his comments as evidence to accuse Mr Hague of exploiting the jailing of Mr Martin to play the law and order card ahead of last week's local elections. Mr Martin is appealing against the life sentence he received last month for the murder of a 16-year-old burglar at his isolated farmhouse.
A Labour spokesman said: "Mr Hague should think twice before jumping on every passing bandwagon. The DPP has joined a lengthening list of people who argue that the law already covers this issue." But the Tories were sticking to their guns last night, with party sources dismissing the DPP's remarks as typical of the "liberal establishment" that Mr Hague wanted to take on.
The Tories argue that the law might need to be changed to allow people to use reasonable force in self-defence if they believe their life is in danger. At present, such force is allowed only when people can prove their life is at risk. Mr Hague also wants the police and Crown Prosecution Service to be issued with new guidelines to ensure "greater restraint" in taking such cases to court.
Ann Widdecombe, shadow Home Secretary, said last night: "The law is clearly not working in such situations. We have put out a number of options. We now intend to give further consideration to each one before reaching a conclusion."
Mr Calvert-Smith said that householders who react spontaneously to a threat with force, and do not persist with the use of force once the threat has ceased, should not be in danger of prosecution.
"The law has for many, many years recognised that in the heat of the moment, those who are under attack - whether to their property or person - cannot really be expected to judge to a nicety how to react, and if in the agony of the moment they do something which on reflection is an over-reaction, then we wouldn't prosecute, unless we thought there was a realistic prospect of conviction," he said.
"Even in cases of quite extreme violence, if it is sudden and in the agony of the moment, we would probably not prosecute."
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