Self-Defense in Great Britain

“On the Right to Self-Defense in Great Britain”
Excerpt from Prof. Thomas Patrick Burke’s book, The Concept of Justice.

…Likewise in Great Britain, the question of the right of self-defense has led to two contrasting approaches. On the traditional view of justice, as explained for example by Locke, the right of self-defense entitles one to kill an intruder who uses force.

This makes it lawful for a man to kill a thief, who has not in the least hurt him, nor declared any design upon his life, any farther than, by the use of force, so to get him in his power, as to take away his money, or what he pleases, from him; because using force, where he has no right, to get me into his power, let his pretence be what it will, I have no reason to suppose, that he who would take away my liberty, would not, when he had me in his power, take away everything else. And therefore it is lawful for me to treat him as one who has put himself into a state of war with me, i.e. kill him if I can; for to that hazard does he justly expose himself, whoever introduces a state of war, and is aggressor in it.

And again:

. . . force, or a declared design of force, upon the person of another, where there is no common superior on earth to appeal to for relief, is the state of war: and it is the want of such an appeal gives a man the right of war even against an aggressor, tho’ he be in society and a fellow subject. Thus a thief, whom I cannot harm, but by appeal to the law, for having stolen all that I am worth, I may kill, when he sets on me to rob me but of my horse or coat; because the law, which was made for my preservation, where it cannot interpose to secure my life from present force, which, if lost, is capable of no reparation, permits me my own defence, and the right of war, a liberty to kill the aggressor, because the aggressor allows not time to appeal to our common judge, nor the decision of the law, for remedy in a case where the mischief may be irreparable.

But from the perspective of “social justice,” the criminal should also be considered a victim, namely of disadvantaged societal or perhaps biological circumstances. This entails a very different and much weaker view of the right of self-defense, which tends to defend the rights of the criminal as ardently as those of his victim, and construe strictly the penalties that can be levied against him. The Court of Appeal (England and Wales) has formulated the rule of self-defense as follows:

It is not, as we understand it, the law that a person threatened must take to his heels and run, but what is necessary is that he should demonstrate by his actions that he does not want to fight. He must demonstrate that he is prepared to temporise and disengage and perhaps to make some physical withdrawal. This is a necessary feature for the justification of self-defence, whether the charge is a homicide charge or something less serious.

One example out of many can illustrate the new and very diminished right of self-defense in the United Kingdom. In 1999, in a celebrated case, Tony Martin, a 55-year-old Norfolk farmer living alone in a shabby farmhouse, awakened to the sound of breaking glass as two burglars, both with long criminal records, burst into his home. He had been robbed six times before, and his village, like the majority of rural English communities, had no police presence. He sneaked downstairs with a shotgun and shot at the intruders. Martin received life in prison for killing one burglar, 10 years for wounding the second, and a year for having an unregistered shotgun. The wounded burglar, having served 18 months of a three-year sentence, is now free and has been granted £5,000 of legal assistance to sue Martin.

These examples from real life should be sufficient to make it clear that whether “social justice” is right or wrong, it is not merely different from ordinary justice, but is in conflict with it. Wherever it is applied, and wherever they are in conflict, “social justice” trumps ordinary justice….