Watchdog worried law now encourages the use of lethal force against intruders

Martin Keenan was aquitted of murder. Photo: Collins Courts
Martin Keenan was aquitted of murder. Photo: Collins Courts
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

Fears have been expressed that a law giving a person the right to use reasonable force against an intruder in their home might encourage the increased use of lethal force.

The Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) has said it is worried about the message which may be taken from the Criminal Law (Defence and the Dwelling) Act 2011, which was used as a defence for the first time in a murder case this week.

Martin Keenan (20) was acquitted by a Central Criminal Court jury of the murder of drug user and convicted burglar Wesley Mooney (33), who he stabbed with half a garden shears after finding him and another intruder in the bedroom of his mobile home.

Mr Keenan said he was frightened and hit one of the intruders with the implement after coming under attack.

The act, introduced in the wake of the high-profile Padraig Nally case in the mid-2000s, specifies that nothing should require a homeowner to retreat from their dwelling. It also allows for the use of reasonable force if a person believes they are in danger, and specifically states this does not exclude force causing death.

Liam Herrick, executive director of the independent human rights watchdog, said it was worried the law might influence people's behaviour.

"We think this was the wrong approach to take at that time and we still think it is the wrong approach now. The worry would be that a message would go out that might encourage people to use lethal force in circumstances where they wouldn't have otherwise," he told the Irish Independent.

Mr Herrick said lethal force should be considered in a different way to other uses of force. "Whereas the statute goes out of its way to include lethal force we would say that there should be a higher standard than just a general reasonableness," he said.

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"We should be looking at things like absolute necessity. That it should only be in circumstances where it is absolutely necessary that the taking of life should be justifiable."

Although the use of force to defend the home was allowed before the 2011 act was introduced, this right was an implicit one and not spelled out as clearly as it now is in the act.

Mr Herrick said there was a "symbolic significance" in the wording of the act and that although the law may not have changed greatly there may be a shifting away from the position that lethal force should only be used as a last resort.

"It is possible that the introduction of legislation which emphasises certain aspects, such as that lethal force can be used, can generally influence a change in behaviour and practice and indeed the law over time," he said.

He also said there was no evidence there was a problem or deficiency in the law prior to the introduction of the act. The law was introduced in part as a response to the Nally case, where a farmer shot dead a notorious criminal who was trespassing on his property. The jailing of Mr Nally for manslaughter caused uproar. He was later cleared following a retrial.

Irish Independent

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