The law for security volunteers

By Jonathan Goldberg, April 8, 2010

Amir from Golders Green writes: Perhaps because of my service in the Israeli Army, I am regularly asked to do security duty on Shabbats and festivals at my synagogue. We have been given little training or instructions, and I would like to know what (if any) lawful powers I have if there were some real incident.

Amir your question is an important and timely one. I wonder how many of the dedicated volunteers guarding our synagogues and communal buildings have any real clue.

It is best to begin with what you cannot lawfully do. You cannot carry weapons of any kind. Possession of any kind of offensive weapon in a public place is considered a serious criminal offence in this country. Recent statutes have especially criminalised the carrying of knives in public. This now routinely attracts a short prison term even for a first offender.

Although there is in theory a defence of "lawful excuse", it is the defendant who must prove this. In my opinion it would be unlikely to avail even the most respectable security volunteer who chose routinely to carry any weapon. The law is always concerned to balance a citizen's right to protect his person and property on the one hand against vigilantism on the other. In Britain (unlike America) the balance usually comes down against vigilantism.

As is well known however, our law has always honoured the ancient doctrine of self-defence, under which a person is entitled to use all such force as is reasonable in the circumstances to defend himself or another from harm.

Likewise our law gives every citizen (and not just a police officer) the right to make an arrest without a warrant. The citizen may lawfully arrest whenever he sees a criminal in the act of, or whom he reasonably suspects to be about to, commit an indictable offence. This means in practice, all serious offences. The citizen can also use reasonable force to make that arrest. But he must have reasonable grounds for believing that it is necessary to make that arrest in order to prevent injury to a person or property, or that the offender will otherwise escape, and moreover, that it is not practicable for a police constable instead to do it.

It will be noted that I have restated the legal ingredient of "reasonable" four times above. Indeed it cannot be overemphasised. What is "reasonable" depends on all the circumstances of each individual case, including the state of mind of the citizen and of the criminal. The police and the Crown Prosecution Service will judge these in deciding whether or not to prosecute a citizen who has been over-enthusiastic in defending himself, such as in the recent cases where householders have killed burglars. Ultimately a jury will decide whether they agree with that assessment or not.

As always the devil is in the detail of each individual case. It is impossible for me to lay down more than general guidance, Amir. If some hapless drunk throws a can of beer at you or at the synagogue windows while mouthing antisemitic abuse, you should do no more than frogmarch him off the premises and perhaps call the police.

But if, say, a neo-Nazi thug, let alone a genuine terrorist, were to attack you with weapons, or perhaps only in a gang with fists and kicks but with murderous intent, there would be no holds barred to any response you could honestly mount in the agony of the moment. If this included even breaking a neck in unarmed combat, or picking up, let us say, a nearby large stone and smashing a skull, then all well and good. It is all a matter of common sense and proportionality.

The law does permit a pre-emptive strike, but you are certainly not allowed to wreak revenge after the danger is over.

What I can safely say is that since the recent notorious cases involving burglars, the police and CPS are today much slower thankfully to prosecute the overenthusiastic but honest citizen, and much less sympathetic to the criminal who came off worse in the encounter, than was once the case. The pendulum has undoubtedly swung.

My own 39 years of experience of juries convinces me that the one defence which always has the best chance of succeeding is self-defence. I recall few trials where it has failed. You and the hundreds of other Jewish volunteers up and down the country doing this vital security work obviously want to know where you stand and to avoid getting into this situation in the first place. The best advice I can give you all therefore, although easy for me to say but hard for you to apply, is to tread lightly and never to overreact.

The above is not formal legal advice and is given without liability. Jonathan Goldberg QC, of Ely Place Chambers, is a leading London barrister

Last updated: 11:02am, April 8 2010