Who is safe at night when a mindless judge hails a burglar's courage?
PUBLISHED September 7, 2012
What's the first thing you experience on a sudden, unplanned awakening, in the middle of the night? Panic, surely. What was that? Why am I awake? The second event, following fast on the first, is the infusion of relief, that leaves the sweat cold on your skin. It was just a nightmare. This feeling will pass.
But what if a third emotion followed hard on that? What would you feel, lying in bed, if a creak on the stairs, or a noise from the kitchen, forced the knowledge upon you that the source of your disturbance wasn't internal, wasn't a dream, but had an external origin? What if someone had broken into your house while you were asleep?
This happened to a friend, Jane, when she was a student. She woke in her north London flat, then sat bolt upright, to find a burglar staring at her from the end of the bed. Jane was "lucky": the man fled, empty-handed. All she's left with is the lifelong knowledge that it's not always irrational to be scared of the dark. Lucky Jane.
Most of us have a fear like this, I should think, and in a predictably circular manner, many of my own nightmares seem to be based on exactly this dread of nocturnal intrusion. Even in the light of day, when most overnight worries dissolve and appear ridiculous, or improbable, the fear of being burgled never recedes entirely.
Our home is not our castle (and I'm not English, either), but it is the physical manifestation of the quiet life we try to live, and it's filled with the worthless-but-priceless stuff of our shared existence. The thought of its desecration by a burglar frightens me: more than that, it enrages me. Every morning I check all our windows and test the front door two, three times before driving off to work. Every night, the release of finding the house undisturbed dissipates with gulps of relief. A waking nightmare, really.
If I'm correct, if this fear is pretty ubiquitous, it helps to explain the reaction to the news about the couple, Andy and Tracey Ferrie, one of whom fired a gun when they believed themselves to be experiencing an (alleged) attempt at burglary. Human rights lawyers aside, most of us would have agreed with the stepfather of Mrs Ferrie, in his view of the treatment the (alleged) burglars deserved: "I'd have blown their bloody heads off," he said. Although the couple were arrested, they've now learnt that they won't face charges and have been released from custody.
The case re-opens an artery that flows red every few years: demands for laws to protect householders in similar situations. In fact, Ken Clarke, in one of his few uncontroversial acts as Justice Secretary, made clear last year that the law was already on the side of householders, while promising to emphasise this in his Justice Bill: "If an old lady finds she has got an 18-year-old burgling her house, and she picks up a kitchen knife and sticks it in him, she has not committed a criminal offence and we will make that clear."
I'm sure he didn't mean to imply that you'd be allowed to use force only if you're older than your intruder and of a different gender. He spoke his usual common sense (fondness for the Human Rights Act notwithstanding). The law is supportive of the homeowner: use "reasonable force" and of course the police will investigate what happened (as they must, whenever a citizen uses force against another); but you shouldn't find yourself charged.
All fine, then? Of course not. Part of the fury we feel lies in the levels of recidivism - and worse, the efforts of the judicial establishment to ignore the fact that with burglary, by definition, "prison works".
This week, Judge Peter Bowers chose not to jail Richard Rochford, a man who had admitted to three burglaries and an attempt at a fourth in the space of five days in East Cleveland. Judge Bowers is reported to have said, "It takes a huge amount of courage… to burgle somebody's house. I wouldn't have the nerve." He's now being investigated by something called the "Office for Judicial Complaints". I won't hold my breath. It's astonishing the fuss about the composition of the House of Lords, a revising chamber, while the methods by which members of the judiciary are appointed pass unremarked. Judges should be independent of the state, not of its people.
The law on defending one's property feel unsatisfactory, I think, because the force I'd want to deploy against a burglar - against someone in the act of proving that my nocturnal dread isn't a nightmare, but, as Jane learnt, can be real - the force I'd want to use against them would never be classified as "reasonable". The stepfather of the man with the gun spoke for most of us.
So what sort of law could ever satisfy such an inhumane desire? The one that we have is probably good enough. But it has to be administered by judges who won't flinch from imprisoning burglars.