The sad case of Trayvon Martin – how does the ‘stand your ground’ law compare in UK?

You will no doubt have seen this news story pop up on Twitter or online over the weekend.

George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder and manslaughter of Trayvon Martin. There has been a lot of discussion, and criticism, surrounding the case and the jury’s verdict. We won’t try to summarise the case or the issues here, as that has been done extensively elsewhere. What we will do is give a brief explanation of the facts and take a look at the law.

Facts

Here is a BBC report explaining the background to the case.

Mr Zimmerman, the neighbourhood watch leader on his estate in Florida saw Martin, aged 17, and called the police to report ‘a suspicious looking male’. Zimmerman confronted Martin, and there was an altercation. Martin was unarmed, carrying a soft drink and some sweets as he walked back to the house of his father’s fiance. Zimmerman shot Martin, who later died.

The defence at trial was basic self-defence; Zimmerman shot Martin because he reasonably feared for his own safety after Martin had punched Zimmerman and slammed his head into the ground. The trial was, according to reports, fairly straightforward in that it was essentially a question of whether Zimmerman’s account could be believed. Martin’s family – and many others – considered that Zimmerman had murdered Martin.

The lawyers avoided the issue of race – which is dealt with here by The Guardian – and the controversial ‘stand your ground’ gun laws in Florida.

Only those in court for the trial can have a fully informed view of the evidence and the verdict, and we will make no attempt to explain the law pertaining to the case, or comment on the verdict. The simple reason is that we are in no position to do so.

Beware of what you read in relation

Stand your ground – how does it compare to UK law?

As we understand it, the stand your ground law in Florida (and many other states) operates to allow a person who fears for their life to use deadly force to defend themselves, without having to flee. Critics of the law suggest that it encourages a ‘shoot first’ mentality and results in a greater number of confrontations.

In the UK we don’t really have an equivalent law, but self-defence operates in a similar way.

Our fact sheet on self-defence is here

In the UK, it is necessary, in order to establish self-defence, to demonstrate that the force you used was reasonable. As an A-level law student, I was given the ‘cucumber / iron bar’ example. If I believed Dan was about to strike me with a cucumber, would it constitute reasonable force if I ‘defend’ myself by hitting him with an iron bar? The question is entirely fact-specific and includes many different considerations. Do I know Dan, is he physically bigger and stronger than I am, what is the context of the situation etc.

What may be reasonable in one case will not be reasonable in another.

In terms of retreating from a confrontation, the law in the UK requires a jury to consider what the defendant believed at the time – not, what is reasonable in the cold light of the court room. If it would have been reasonable for a defendant to remove himself from a confrontation rather than attack his alleged assailant, then self-defence may be difficult to establish.

Returning to standing your ground and looking at that in the context of our law, the recent ‘change’ in the law in relation to burglary and defending oneself makes no real change at all. As always, homeowners can defend themselves – with reasonable force. If you stand your ground in a confrontation in the UK, then your actions must still be reasonable.

Here, if the Zimmerman/Martin confrontation had occurred in the UK, it is unlikely that there would have been a duty to retreat. The problem would be that if you don’t it is more difficult to convince a jury that you were acting reasonably.

The tragedy of the Martin case at least throws up some important questions relating to gun control, the stand your ground’ law and race.

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