Has Chris Grayling actually read the law on household defence?

The law already provides a robust defence of those who used what they considered to be"reasonable force".

Confirming his status as the darling of the Tory right, Chris Grayling will announce in his speech to the Conservative conference today that the law will be changed to allow householders to use "disproportionate force" against burglars. The recently appointed Justice Secretary will say:

Being confronted by an intruder in your own home is terrifying, and the public should be in no doubt that the law is on their side. That is why I am strengthening the current law.

Householders who act instinctively and honestly in self-defence are victims of crime and and should be treated that way. We need to dispel doubts in this area once and for all, and I am very pleased to be today delivering on the pledge that we made in opposition.

But populism aside, it's hard to see why Grayling believes that a change in the law is either necessary or desirable. The current law, which allows householders to use "reasonable force", supports them provided that:

- they acted instinctively;
- they feared for their safety or that of others, and acted based on their perception of the threat (emphasis mine) faced and the scale of that threat;
- they acted to effect a lawful arrest or to prevent the escape of a person lawfully detained; and
- the level of force used was not excessive or disproportionate in the circumstances as they viewed them (emphasis mine).

Section 76.7 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 requires the court to take into account that "a person acting for a legitimate purpose may not be able to weigh to a nicety the exact measure of any necessary action", and that "evidence of a person's having only done what the person honestly and instinctively thought was necessary for a legitimate purpose constitutes strong evidence that only reasonable action was taken by that person for that purpose".

In other words, the law not only defends householders' right to use "reasonable force" but their right to use what they perceived to be "reasonable force" at the time. A Conservative source tells the Guardian: "This is not about letting people go on the rampage. There is a difference between grabbing a bedside lamp and whacking an intruder because you are worried about the children and hitting someone and then stabbing them 17 times". Yet the law, as it stands, already makes this distinction.

Indeed, as Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions, has previously noted: "There are many cases, some involving death, where no prosecutions are brought. We would only ever bring a prosecution where we thought that the degree of force was unreasonable in such a way that the jury would realistically convict. So these are very rare cases and history tells us that the current test works very well."

Since, under Grayling's proposals, "grossly disproportionate" force will still be outlawed, it is unclear what will actually change. The danger is that his rhetoric will lead householders to falsely believe that they have an unqualified right to kill or maim a burglar and, ironically, increase the risk of prosecutions.

Grayling is right when he argues that "the public should be in no doubt that the law is on their side" - it already is. And the suggestion that is is not, will only spread dangerous and unnecessary confusion.

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said "the public should be in no doubt that the law is on their side". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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