Page last updated at 06:46 GMT, Monday, 28 July 2003 07:46 UK

Reform call over Martin case

by Nic Rigby
BBC News Online

Henry Bellingham MP
Henry Bellingham MP calls for changes to the law
The Tony Martin case has raised concerns over the law in relation to the rights of householders.

Martin was jailed after shooting dead teenager Fred Barras and wounding his accomplice Brendan Fearon, who had broken into his isolated Norfolk farmhouse home.

Martin's MP Henry Bellingham believes the government needs to look at changing the law in relation to self defence.

"The whole law with regards to householder rights needs reform," he said.

"Tony Martin will be campaigning hard on this. The law is confused. It needs to be changed.

"I would like to see a law commission looking at this. The law should be more weighted in favour of the householder.

Tony Martin's farm Bleak House
The burglars entered Martin dilapidated home at Bleak House

"What we have at the moment is an assumption against the householder.

"If a householder takes any action against an intruder, the householder is prosecuted. It should be an assumption in favour of a householder."

Constitutional Affairs Secretary Lord Falconer said that the Government would consider changing the law to strike the right balance in cases like Martin's, where Fearon had threatened to sue the farmer.

He told the BBC on Monday: "I think the Home Secretary has already made clear that we need to look at the law in the context of the circumstances where reasonable self-defence could nevertheless lead to somebody being pursued in the civil courts.

"The Home Secretary has already made it clear a long time before today that he was looking to see whether or not there needs to be an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill to look at that."

There is a specific provision which says you are allowed to use deadly force against a person committing an unlawful entry
Adrienne McFarland, assistant attorney general in Texas

Graham Virgo, a reader in English law at Cambridge University, said: "It is initially a test of reasonableness. You first have regard to a defendant's honest beliefs.

"The jury convicted Martin because they believed his beliefs were unreasonable on the facts of the case."

Paul Gilbert, human rights lawyer at Finers Stephens Innocent Associates, added: "What Martin's case also demonstrates is that force used in self defence has to be spontaneous.

"The lengths to which he had gone to defend his property, rigging up ladders in trees as look-out posts and the removal of a stair inside his property did not assist him."

'Lethal force' allowed

In many countries in Europe and the US the law appears to give householders more rights.

Olivia Luhrmann, public prosecutor in Dusseldorf, told BBC News Online: "In Germany the law is that you are allowed to shoot burglars, you are allowed to use lethal force, if you are defending your property."

She recalled one case in Germany where a burglar was shot dead running away from a house with property he had stolen.

"At the first trial the householder was convicted of manslaughter, but the appeal court said what he did was OK because it was justified to protect his property," said Ms Luhrmann.

She said the court will also consider how much property the burglar was taking and the age of the burglar.

If a householder shot someone who was taking items worth less than 50 or was a child then the defence is almost certain to fail.

Adrienne McFarland, assistant attorney general in Texas in the USA, said that in her state it was likely that Martin would not have been prosecuted.

No warning needed

"Here in Texas you do have a right to defend your house," she said.

"There is a specific provision which says you are allowed to use deadly force against a person committing an unlawful entry."

She said that the householder did not first have to warn the burglar for the self-defence argument to operate.

"If he is in the house this would meet the definition," she said.

This law can also, in certain circumstances, be used to defend the shooting of burglars outside the property.

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