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The BBC's Peter Hunt
"What constitutes reasonable force?"
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The BBC's Jon Silverman
"Cases where intruders are killed don't always go to court"
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Gavin Alston, National Farmers Union
Everyone has to lock and bolt everything up"
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Wednesday, 19 April, 2000, 14:39 GMT 15:39 UK
Crime in the countryside

Police guard the entrance to Tony Martin's farm
By BBC home and legal affairs correspondent Jon Silverman

The case of Norfolk farmer Tony Martin has raised important questions about the law on self-defence and about the extent of rural crime.

The National Farmers Union Mutual, which insures more than two-thirds of UK farmers, estimates that crime costs them well over 100m a year.

Thieves are travelling further afield
Vehicle theft alone, running at 30,000 vehicles in 1997, cost 73m.

As security protection in urban areas has improved, there is evidence that thieves are turning their attention to the countryside.

Fear of crime is compounded by the closure of police sub-stations and a fall, in recent years, in the number of front-line officers.

'Police not an option'

Tim Price, of NFU Mutual, says nobody would condone vigilantism but he understands the genuine concern of farmers and the view, of some, that the police can no longer be relied on for protection.

In the area of Norfolk where Tony Martin lives, there is a certain amount of sympathy for his predicament.

David Barnard, a parish councillor at Upwell, said: "For many isolated farmers, calling the police is not an option. You've got to fend for yourself and hope that your security is good enough. But if it's not, then what?"

Roger Western, a neighbour of Tony Martin, is even more blunt.

Many fellow farmers back Tony Martin

He said: "I don't see that you can call what he did 'murder'. He was a chap defending his own life. If I had had a gun, in a similar situation, I would have shot the intruders."

This raises the issue of self-defence in English law. The question that any court will ask is: Was the degree of force used reasonable in the circumstances as the defendant supposed them to be?

In other words, if someone has cause to believe they are being threatened with a gun and they fire a fatal shot, it may well be justifiable self-defence, even if it later transpires that the assailant or intruder was unarmed.

Ronald Thwaites QC, a leading defence lawyer for 30 years, says courts will want to look closely at the sequence of actions - and whether a defendant has acted out of revenge or vindictiveness.

Self-defence under scrutiny

"If they have lost control after the emergency has passed, then there may well be criminal culpability," he added.

What causes confusion is that apparently similar cases have very different legal outcomes.

A pensioner in Derbyshire who fired a shotgun towards an intruder on his allotment was charged with wounding, but acquitted by a jury.

But an Essex man who stabbed a burglar to death was not prosecuted.

Although such incidents are comparatively rare, it is a fair assumption that the Tony Martin case will not be the last time that self-defence is tested in court.

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