My Practice – Joanna Perry

Research into the victims of burglary found them more concerned with health and finances than self-defence, writes Joanna Perry

Under what circumstances should property owners be prosecuted for harming intruders? This is a question that we were asked to address when a private members’ bill was introduced last year in parliament.

The bill sought to raise the threshold above which a person would be prosecuted for harming an intruder when acting in self-defence from “reasonable” to “grossly disproportionate” force.

On the face of it, why wouldn’t Victim Support encourage measures that seem to give victims greater protection and freedom. But, digging more deeply, the problem is far more complex.

The first question we needed to ask was what do our members think? On such an important issue it was crucial that we canvassed their views. Second, because we had not given a view about this topic in the past, it was necessary to consult senior management and trustees.

We found that very few prosecutions had been undertaken under existing law. This suggested that there was more of a perceived than an actual risk that victims were being unfairly prosecuted when they acted in self-defence against intruders.

Joint guidance from the Crown Prosecution Service and police is clear and sets out how decisions would be made about prosecution and assuring people that, even if they killed an intruder in selfdefence, this is unlikely to lead to a prosecution.

On the other hand, if a victim of burglary premeditates a violent act against an intruder, this might well lead to a decision to prosecute.

An important factor in our consideration was to what extent can we legislate for an instinctive “fight or flight” response that may make someone a victim of crime?

Can the law handle a reaction that may range from killing a person to collapsing in a heap on the floor? This point exposes the failing of the criminal law to take account of the psychology of fear while at the same time demonstrating the need for guidance on the subject.

Of course, the more common needs of the majority of victims of burglary are often ignored in discussions like these.

Our recent research found that more than half of the 545 people who were surveyed reported difficulty in sleeping after they were burgled, and more than a third experienced depression or anxiety.

People who had been burgled also said they wanted practical help and advice and that they suffered financial consequences because of the crime. These are issues that also need guidance and direction from the relevant agencies. We will certainly be using the research to improve our own service to victims of burglary.

Let’s hope that parliament will also make the time to provide legislative backing to meet these less high profile but far more pervasive needs too.

Joanna Perry is policy officer, Victim Support


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