The UK's new self-defence law opens the door for a Trayvon Martin case

By placing what is essentially a variant of Florida's "stand your ground" law on the statute book, the coalition has created the potential for greater acts of vigilantism.

Tony and Trayvon Martin. Not related by blood, but the two share more than a surname. The supporters of both men claim that they are the victims of unfair self-defence laws in their respective countries. Whereas in the UK, Tony Martin was deemed to have unlawfully killed the burglar who had entered his farmhouse, Trayvon Martin’s killer has walked free from a Florida Court. In seeking to avoid the issues caused by Tony Martin’s prison sentence, the UK government has made worrying moves towards the much-criticised US position.

The “stand your ground” self-defence law in Florida, states that a person who is attacked in a place where he or she has a right to be has “no duty to retreat and has the right to… meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so”.

In the aftermath of the Zimmerman trial, the United States Attorney General, Eric Holder called into question “laws that senselessly expand the concept of self-defence and sow dangerous conflict in our neighbourhoods”. The veteran campaigner Reverend Al Sharpton went as far as to describe the stand your ground law, which exists in over 30 States as the “worst violation of civil rights” in America. If the dry words of the legal text books do not provide enough context, perhaps the fact that this law is supported strongly by the National Rifle Association will.

Opponents argue that by allowing a lawful excuse for people to stand and fight when faced with what they perceive to be a grave threat, the law will lead to unnecessary escalations in violence. When this is coupled with ingrained racial stereotyping which perceives certain races to be more threatening than others, the law can justify or even catalyse a deadly chain of events.

Ironically, it is a variant of the stand your ground law – in fact a more extreme form – that the coalition has just written into the statute books.  

In 2012, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling grandly declared: “The public should be in no doubt that in such circumstances that the law really is on their side. We need to get rid of doubts in this area once and for all”. Contrary to Grayling’s version of events, the law prior to his amendment was appropriate to deal with the situation of people threatened in their own homes: a person was allowed to use such force as is reasonable, in the circumstances which he honestly believed to be the case. This rule took into account the possibility for an honest mistake about the level of threat that an intruder poses but crucially, did not act as a carte-blanche for acts of personal revenge or retribution. Sometimes, it is reasonable to not use force at all.

The law did not impose an onerous duty on the initial victims of a crime to carefully consider absurd trade-offs: “Should I hit him with a vase, or use a golf club?” The statute books, judges, and perhaps most crucially, the Crown Prosecution Service did not expect a person to, as one Law Lord put it “weigh to a nicety” the exact measure of a defensive action. Fortunately, this remains unchanged in all situations apart from that of the household.

One recent amendment provides that a possibility that a defendant could have retreated is to be as a factor to be taken into account in deciding whether force was reasonable, rather than as giving rise to a duty to retreat– in other words, this is a statutory endorsement of the stand your ground law. More importantly though, s.43 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, which came into force this April, provides that in a household case (the definition of which is complex), the degree of force used by a defendant is “not to be regarded as having been reasonable” in the circumstances as the defendant believed them to be “if it was grossly disproportionate in those circumstances”. This ungainly negative formulation will only serve to confuse matters. It appears that some level of disproportionate force will be available to householders, but precisely what degree is entirely unclear. How does one distinguish what is merely disproportionate from grossly disproportionate?

Chris Grayling’s bluster is liable to cause two problems. First, the new law will create more rather than less confusion, second it may even encourage people to think that acts of vigilantism are now ratified. As the Trayvon Martin case has demonstrated, this can go horribly wrong. In their knee-jerk reaction to the cases like that of Tony Martin, the government risks opening the door to the tragedy of his namesake.

 

 

People hold up photographs of Trayvon Martin at a rally in Manhattan. Photograph: Getty Images

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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