Is it illegal to be a vigilante?
Vigilante comes from the Spanish word ‘vigilare’, meaning ‘to keep watch’. A vigilante is someone who gets together with a group of like-minded people to protect their property or local community. This type of action is generally taken when it is felt that the police are not providing sufficient protection and people need to make a stand to protect themselves and their property. Taking direct action to prevent criminals from attacking your own and your neighbour’s property can be glamorised, but is it illegal to do so?
Legality of being a vigilante
There is an old adage that an Englishman’s home is his castle, meaning that he should have the right to protect it; however, this should be followed with caution as there is a very big legal difference between the act of self defence and the actions of a vigilante.
Self defence is a legal defence to various crimes against the person. However, in order to constitute self defence a person must only use reasonable and proportionate force to protect themselves. This is the law’s way of balancing the fact that you do not have to wait to be attacked before defending yourself; although, you must fear that you are about to be attacked, and this fear must be a reasonable one.
Simply fearing that someone may attack you is not enough to claim self defence if you use excessive force. For example, it is not self defence if fearing you will be pushed over you shoot somebody.
The actions of a vigilante however tend to be different, since they take pro-active action to ensure that their property is not attacked. In most cases this type of behaviour will only exacerbate the problem. It is also likely to earn a criminal punishment.
If a local gang are causing trouble and the community gets together to stand up against the local gang then any actions of violence against the gang will result in criminal punishment. This is because the actions will not be deemed as ‘reasonable’ to justify self-protection. Indeed this type of action goes beyond merely necessary self-defence and is therefore liable to criminal punishment.
Recent vigilante acts
In the recent London riots there were several areas where communities came together to protect their property from rioters. If individuals come together, stand outside their shops and commit no criminal activities then clearly they will not have committed an offence; however, this type of action is only likely to lead to an escalation of violence should rioters turn up.
Police and vigilantes
The police strongly advise against vigilante behaviour as it tends to incite violence, makes things harder for the police and leads to more injuries and arrests. People should be aware of their rights to protect themselves legally; however, they should also be aware that self defence must be reasonable in order to constitute a legal defence and pro-action vigilante behaviour is likely to lead to your arrest.
If you fear for your property or your own safety you should contact the police urgently. However tempting, direct action against criminals is only likely to lead to a criminal punishment of your own.