HL Deb 18 October 1995 vol 566 cc739-40

2.59 p.m.

Viscount Caldecote asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will clarify, and if necessary amend, the law relating to citizens who take immediate action to apprehend or prevent the escape of a person seen to have committed an offence.

The Lord Advocate (Lord Rodger of Earlsferry)

My Lords, the law allows anyone to use reasonable force in effecting a lawful arrest. The principle is clear and simple and the Government have no present plans to ask Parliament to amend the law. Nonetheless, the application of the principle may give rise to difficulties in particular circumstances and my right honourable and learned friend the Attorney-General has accordingly asked the Director of Public Prosecutions to consider how further guidance to the police can best be given.

Viscount Caldecote

My Lords, I thank my noble and learned friend for that very helpful Answer. Perhaps I may suggest to him that when these investigations are being undertaken the Attorney-General should look carefully at the proposals that clearer instructions should be given to the CPS and the police so that they act more sensibly in cases of this kind.

Lord Rodger of Earlsferry

My Lords, my right honourable and learned friend the Attorney-General does indeed have in mind that the charging standards in matters of assault are revised in such a way as to give better guidance to the police so that they may know better when to charge and when to refer the matter to the Crown Prosecution Service for advice. That will often be the very best way of dealing with these matters.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is my noble and learned friend aware that in England and Wales—I cannot say what happens in Scotland—before the difference between felonies and misdemeanours was abolished, a citizen who saw a felony being committed had a duty under the common law to arrest the person doing it? To what extent is an obligation of that kind still part of the law, if at all?

Lord Rodger of Earlsferry

My Lords, I would not like to answer that question on an examination of the English law off the top of my head. I know that the position in Scotland is that there i 3 no duty on the citizen to take such a course. However, where people do intervene in this way the law takes a rather robust view of what is reasonable in the circumstances. I am sure that all noble Lords will agree that that is appropriate.

Lord Monson

My Lords, does not the noble and learned Lord agree that the benefit of the doubt in these matters should always be given to the householder, shopkeeper or car owner rather than to the thief and the vandal?

Lord Rodger of Earlsferry

My Lords, as a generality I think that the correct approach is to take the view that a person who is defending his property is likely to be in the right. On the other hand, your Lordships can appreciate that there may he particular circumstances. If, for example, the householder was a drugs dealer and it appeared that the whole incident arose out of his drugs dealing, a rather different attitude might be appropriate. It all depends on the circumstances in such cases.

Lord Gisborough

My Lords, is my noble and learned friend aware that we have reached the absurd situation that criminals doing wrong are simply given probation or other considerate treatment while over and over again those who apprehend criminals are often sued for hurting them? Are we not entering Cloud-cuckoo-land?

Lord Rodger of Earlsferry

My Lords, I have no doubt that there are occasions when slightly odd things occur, but your Lordships will be aware that it is often unwise to rely entirely on what one reads in the press about the facts of any particular case.