Having someone invade your home must be amongst the most horrifying things that can happen to you, particularly if you are a parent with young children. If someone broke into our home, I imagine that my reaction would be a potent mix of fear, confusion, and violent anger. With such a range of emotions running through me, I would do anything and everything to protect my wife and cat from harm. I am sure you, my brave reader, would do all you could to protect your own family (and pets), in such a situation.

Let us hope neither of us ever have to find out what we would do, as the legal consequences of taking action against an intruder are potentially life-changing for all involved. Just ask a man in Newcastle, New South Wales, who found out in March 2016 that the law will only go so far in allowing us to protect ourselves and our home from an intruder, before we face legal consequences of our own.

The Newcastle man woke to find a stranger in his house one evening, confronted him, chased him out of the house and down the street, caught him, fought with him, and inflicted such severe injuries on the intruder that the intruder later died in hospital.

The homeowner was charged with ‘recklessly inflicting grievous bodily harm’, which then got upgraded to a murder charge. Serious stuff, and it led to a debate in the media and in the courts around how far someone can go to defend themselves from a home invader. Do we simply have to accept the break-in, do nothing, and let the intruder do whatever they please? Are we permitted to defend ourselves and our property? If so, how far can we go in our defence?

The problem is that, in a real-life situation, these are not the sort of questions that would run through your mind. I expect someone in this situation would be thinking either ‘RUN’ or ‘KILL’ and not ‘EXERCISE LEGALLY PERMISSIBLE LEVEL OF SELF-DEFENCE.’

What made the Newcastle man’s case even more complex was that the fight did not occur in his home, but rather out on the street after a long chase. Was the homeowner, in chasing the intruder with the intention of catching him and beating the crap out of him, taking things too far?

As I write this in mid 2018, the case against the homeowner is still ongoing. However, the fact that the police were prepared to bring charges against the homeowner for his actions, and that a court was prepared to hear them and decide on those charges, makes it clear(er) that there are limits to how far you can go to legally protect yourself and your home from an intruder.

There are lots of other examples of where the law has had to consider whether someone has gone too far in protecting themselves and their family in the home. Hey, big surprise, most of them involve the United States and people taking their guns to bed with them, then waking up just in time to grab their gun and shoot an intruder.

Other fun examples from the United States? People leaving traps throughout their home that result in intruders being injured, maimed, killed, or falling through a hidden trapdoor into a hole filled with sewerage. Only in America, right?

So, what can you legally do to an intruder who breaks into your home?

If your actions are considered by the police or a court to be a reasonable response to threats made by the intruder, then you will not be committing a crime by defending yourself. That means that if an intruder charges at you with a knife screaming things like ‘I am going to stab you good and proper, and then kick you, and then flick you painfully with a wet tea towel’ you are completely within your legal rights to defend yourself in a reasonable manner. This might include hitting the intruder over the head with your dog, or a frying pan, or your lightest and hence most easily swung child.

Obviously, knowing what is a ‘reasonable’ response to an intruder breaking into your home is not easy, particularly when shit is going down around you. You might react violently out of shock and hit an intruder with a cricket bat several times, when all the intruder had by way of weaponry was bad breath. This would probably be self-defence and you’d be OK, given you were reacting to a shocking situation. However, if you beat up the intruder, tied them up, and subjected them to torture such as making them watch back-to-back episodes of Home and Away, your response could be considered by the police and courts to be unreasonable and hence illegal.

You have to know where to draw the line, or at least have the self-control not to step over it. If, in defending yourself or your family from an intruder, you are no longer acting out of instinct, but out of deliberate malice or revenge, then you need to be aware of the legal consequences that are likely to follow and be prepared to face criminal charges for your actions.

So by all means, keep a cricket bat beside your bed for protection. Just remember that if you do start swinging it, you need to know when to stop. The second you realise you no longer need to swing it, but decide to keep doing so anyway, is the time you might start to find yourself in as much legal trouble as the intruder (if not more).