Does the home defence bill clarify the law?

[Updates at end] The Minister for Justice has published the Criminal Law (Defence and the Dwelling Bill) 2010. In 2009, the Law Reform Commission published a report on general defences in criminal law which addressed the specific issue of home defence, noting:

The law surrounding these defences, as with many aspects of the criminal law, has evolved over time. The nature and scope of these defences have, in the Commission‟s view, been troubled with some inconsistencies, competing rationales and even arguments as to whether they should be abolished in certain instances. In this Report, the Commission proposes to provide a more coherent framework for the future application of the defences.

As indicated by the above statement, there is already plenty of law on the subject but, as it derives from case law it can be unpredictable and often fails the black and white certainty test called for by the media and public on certain occasions.

From the US National Archives
A reasonable defence against theft of some petrol?

Background

The Law Reform Commission suggested draft legislation to clarify the law on home defence which was not adopted by the Minister (though he might have been expected to). In reality, the new Bill has been generated as a response to the killing of John “Frog” Ward. A background to that case and the resulting prosecutions of Padraig Nally is available on Wikipedia, and the usual health warning applies.

That Mr. Nally was convicted, successfully appealed and was acquitted on re-trial evidences the lack of clarity or consistency in the law. Nevertheless, it is a strange case to act as a catalyst for new laws to strengthen the position of those who use force in self-defence. Mr. Nally was living alone at his home and appears to have been subjected to an indefensible series of incidents which led him to feel threatened in his home, but the case was not the stereotypical home defence case. It should be remembered that that:

  • Mr. Nally did not encounter the trespasser at close quarters within the home, rather he saw a trespasser exiting his home;
  • the incident took place at around 2 pm., in daylight;
  • Mr. Nally went to an outhouse where he had stored his gun;
  • he shot the trespasser, later reloaded his gun and fired another shot at the trespasser, who was now fleeing the scene; and
  • he beat him a significant number of times with a stick.

Other proposals to change the law on home defence

In response to the Nally cases, Fine Gael presented two private members’ bills on this issue in the Oireachtas, both with similar content, in 2006 and 2009. Both provided that, where a trespasser is unlawfully present in a dwelling “and remains within the dwelling”, resulting in the use of force by the occupier, that force is presumed to be reasonable unless the contrary is proven. However, nothing in either bill would have provided a defence to a charge of murder.

In addition to addressing criminal liability, both bills provided that no liability in tort would accrue to the occupier “in respect of any harm, whether serious or not, caused by his or her actions in relation to a trespasser” unless the force used is found to be unreasonable.

The Law Reform Commission’s draft bill provided, in relation to dwellings, that a person could use force (including lethal force) in the dwelling or the vicinity of it by way of defence to the threat or use of unlawful force by another person. This would only apply in the case of a threat of death or serious injury, rape or aggravated sexual assault, false imprisonment by force, unlawful entry to or occupation of the dwelling and damage to or destruction of the dwelling.

The Government’s Bill

The Minister’s Bill provides that it will not be an offence to use force within a dwelling against another person or their property where

  • (s)he believes the other person has entered or is entering the dwelling as a trespasser for the purpose of committing a criminal act; and
  • the force used is only such as is reasonable in the circumstances as he or she believes them to be (i) to protect from injury, assault, detention or death caused by a criminal act; (ii) to protect property from appropriation, destruction or damage caused by a criminal act, or (iii) to prevent the commission of a crime or to effect or assist in effecting, a lawful arrest.

The substance of the Bill provides much scope for debate, not least because the Fine Gael proposal did not provide a defence for a murder charge: the Minister’s Bill does. The criteria for reasonableness are in need of greater scrutiny but the provision on civil liability raises new questions.

Section 5 of the Bill provides that a person who uses force as permitted by the Bill shall not be liable in tort “in respect of any injury, loss or damage arising from the use of such force.” Such a provision could block claims like those taken by Mr. Ward’s widow against Mr. Nally. It will be interesting to see how this provision will work. The criminal justice system requires proof of guilt beyond reasonable doubt; the civil requirement is a lesser threshold of satisfying the balance of probabilities. If the user of force is acquitted on the basis of a section 2 defence, does that determine the matter for a judge hearing the civil trial? Or will the judge hearing the civil trial have to consider the issue, for example where no prosecution is brought against the user of force? If that judge determines that the force used was not permissible, will a prosecution result? It would certainly seem that cases of this sort should be excluded from the operation of the Injuries Board, which will hardly be in a position to determine the issue, but the Bill is silent on this.

Fine Gael’s 2009 Bill referred to harm caused “in relation to a trespasser”; an imprecise  phrase but one assumes that it absolves the user of force from civil liability to the trespasser. The Minister’s 2010 Bill is not so limited, allowing for the potential that a lawful resident, guest or neighbour who might be injured as a result of the force directed at the trespasser will be barred from taking action against the user of force. Alternatively, a guest in the home could use lawful force against a trespasser but injure the home owner. Section 5 appears to absolve that guest from all civil liability.

Does this Bill clarify the law?

The first draft of this Bill is likely to be a source of further confusion and ambiguity. It certainly does not tie up loose ends. While it is presented as legislation that “clarifies” the law, it is more accurate to say that it merely updates or amends the law. Sections 2(3) and (4), along with other aspects of the Bill, arguably do not advance the clarity of the  law on this topic. Despite frequent complaints from the public (and lawyers) that legislation is difficult to understand, those subsections are barely comprehensible. It is baffling that a simpler way could not be found to express some aspects of this Bill.

However, given that it resembles the Fine Gael bills at the high level, it could attract a good deal of cross-party support and pass through the Oireacthas without detailed scrutiny of its wording. This happened recently with the Civil Partnership and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Act 2010, Part 15 of which did not receive significant textual scrutiny despite criticisms from leading academics that the provisions on cohabitants’ rights were poorly drafted, contained anomalies and could do more harm than good.

Updates

  • Sinéad Ring discusses the Bill on the Human Rights in Ireland blog.
  • Vincent Browne says that the Bill “serves only nasty political ends”. As noted by the Law Reform Commission and others, reform of the law was necessary but the Bill does not resolve the issues and it is hard to disagree with Browne’s political assessment of the legislation:

Now a Bill has been introduced whose only purpose seems to be to respond to that vibe of five years ago, thereby neutralising any opportunist point-scoring in that arena by Fine Gael, while, incidentally, reminding Fianna Fáil TDs that there is a strong man around, should they be looking for same between now and the election.

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One thought on “Does the home defence bill clarify the law?

  1. So we can all agree that this area is in great need of reform. We know there is serious ambiguity when it comes to interpreting recent case law. This Bill I do not think is the answer! I wonder why Minster Dermot Ahern chose summer recess to publish this bill. I think it is lazy and reactionary policy making. The Nally case was a shambles for so many reasons and it s foolish to make policy on a case that was so extreme

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