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The BBC's Richard Bilton
"The debate his case has generated will not end with his conviction"
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Thursday, 20 April, 2000, 16:49 GMT 17:49 UK
Farmer case exposes legal confusion

The case of Tony Martin, the farmer found guilty of killing a teenage burglar, has brought the law governing self defence under renewed scrutiny.

Following Martin's conviction many have expressed concern that legal inadequacies strip house owners of the right to protect their property.

Typical of those disturbed by this week's ruling at Norwich Crown Court is Roger Western - a neighbour of 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."

His view raises the crucial issue of self-defence in English law.

In principle, courts assessing any incident must pose the question: Was the degree of force used reasonable in the circumstances as the defendant supposed them to be?

Many feel Tony Martin was justified
This may allow for the justification of someone firing a fatal shot in self defence, providing they have cause to believe they are being threatened with a gun - 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.

Criminal culpability

"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.

Despite the likelihood of future challenges, Law Lords insist the "reasonable" element in this limited licence for violence is clearly defined.

In one ruling, Lord Griffiths said: "A man about to be attacked does not have to wait for his assailant to strike the first blow or fire the first shot."

Robert Sayer, president of the Law Society, concurs that the definition should be clear-cut, but acknowledges there is scope for varied interpretation.

'Imminent danger'

"In theory the law is reasonably clear. If you feel that you or your family are in imminent danger, you are allowed to use reasonable force to defend yourself.

"The problem is what is reasonable force, because every case is different and a year or two after the incident, the jury may be looking at it with hindsight.

"It depends what is in your mind.

"If you think there are people coming in and you are in danger, then I think you are entitled to strike the first blow.

"If you are looking as though you are acting reasonably then they tend to give you the benefit of the doubt.

"Clearly if you are in your bedroom and you hear somebody coming in and you hit them - that's probably going to be reasonable.

"But if you were to creep downstairs and go up behind somebody and they do not know you are there and you cave their skull in - that's not reasonable."

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20 Apr 00 | UK
Spotlight on rural crime
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