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Burglary in United Kingdom

Definition of Burglary

Sec 9 of the theft act 1978 defines the offence of burglary.

In accordance with the work A Dictionary of Law, this is a description of Burglary :

The offence, under the Theft Act 1968, of either entering a building, ship, or inhabited vehicle (e.g. a caravan) as a trespasser with the intention of committing one of four specified crimes in it (burglary with intent) or entering it as a trespasser only but subsequently committing one of two specified crimes in it (burglary without intent). The four specified crimes for burglary with intent are:

The two specified offences for burglary without intent are (1) stealing or attempting to steal; and (2) inflicting or attempting to inflict grievous bodily harm. Burglary is punishable by up to 14 years’ imprisonment. Aggravated burglary, in which the trespasser is carrying a weapon of offence, explosive, or firearm, may be punished by a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. The Crime (Sentences) Act 1997 provides for an automatic three-year minimum sentence for third-time burglars, although judges may give a lesser sentence if the court considers the minimum would be unjust in all the circumstances.

Burglary, is a common crime in most industrial societies – one that evokes anxiety among the public and, particularly, its victims.

The law of England and Wales defines burglary in the Theft Act 1968, section 9(1):

“A person is guilty of burglary if:

  • He enters any building or part of a building as a trespasser and with intent to commit any such offence as is mentioned in subsection (2) below; or
  • Having entered any building or part of a building as a trespasser he steals or attempts to steal anything in the building or that part of it or inflicts or attempts to inflict on any person therein any grievous bodily harm.”

In the section 9(2), the Act stablishes that the offences referred above are “offences of stealing anything in the building or part of a building in question, of inflicting on any person therein any grievous bodily harm, and of doing unlawful damage to the building or anything therein.”

Section 9 creates two groups of offences: one of entering a building (or part of a building) as a trespasser with the requisite intent, contrary to s. 9(1)(a); the other of having entered a building (or part of a building) as a trespasser and committing a specified offence, contrary to s. 9(1)(b). In each case there are now (by s. 9(4) as amended) two offences dependent upon whether the building is or is not a dwelling.

The Court of Appeal has provided the following guidelines on the starting point for sentences after trial in cases of domestic burglary by adults, the application of which will be subject to all the circumstances of the particular case.

(1) For a low level domestic burglary committed by a first-time domestic burglar (and for some second-time domestic burglars) where there is no damage to property and no property (or only property of very low value) is stolen, the starting point should be a community sentence.

(2) For a domestic burglary in which a custodial sentence of up to 18 months would otherwise have been the starting point, the initial approach of the courts should be to impose a community sentence subject to conditions that ensure an effective punishment which offers action on the part of the Probation Service to tackle the offender’s criminal behaviour and, when appropriate, will tackle the offender’s underlying problems such as drug addiction. The court should resort to a custodial sentence if, and only if, it is satisfied that the offender has demonstrated by his or her behaviour that community punishment is not practicable. Where a custodial sentence is necessary, it should be no longer than necessary. In the case of repeat offenders and aggravated offences, long sentences will still be necessary.

(3) In the case of a standard domestic burglary which additionally displays any one of the high-level aggravating features (ie the use or threat of force against the victim, injury to the victim, an especially traumatic effect on the victim in excess of the trauma generally associated with a standard burglary, professional planning, vandalism of the premises in excess of the damage generally associated with a standard burglary, the offence was racially aggravated and a vulnerable victim had been deliberately targeted), the starting point should be a custodial sentence of:

  • 18 months if the offence has been committed by a first-time domestic burglar,
  • 36 months if committed by a second-time domestic burglar and
  • 54 months if committed by an offender with two or more previous convictions for domestic burglary. The presence of more than one high-level aggravating feature may bring the sentence for an offence at that level significantly above the starting points.

Explaining the ‘The offence The Court of Appeal said,”Domestic burglary is, and always has been, regarded as a very serious offence. It may involve considerable loss to the victim. Even when it does not, the victim may lose possessions of particular value to him or her. To those who are insured, the receipt of financial compensation does not replace what is lost. But many victims are uninsured: because they may have fewer possessions, they are the more seriously injured by the loss of those they do have. The loss of material possessions is, however, only part (and often a minor part) of the reason why domestic burglary is a serious offence. Most people, perfectly legitimately, attach importance to the privacy and security of their own homes.

That an intruder should break in or enter, for his own dishonest purposes, leaves the victim with a sense of violation and insecurity. Even where the victim is unaware, at the time, that the burglar is in the house, it can be a frightening experience to learn that a burglary has taken place; and it is all the more frightening if the victim confronts or hears the burglar. Generally speaking, it is more frightening if the victim is in the house when the burglary takes place, and if the intrusion takes place at night; but that does not mean that the offence is not serious if the victim returns to an empty house during the daytime to find that it has been burgled. The seriousness of the offence can vary almost infinitely from case to case. It may involve an impulsive act involving an object of little value (reaching through a window to take a bottle of milk, or stealing a can of petrol from an outhouse). At the other end of the spectrum it may involve a professional, planned organisation, directed at objects of high value. Or the offence may be deliberately directed at the elderly, the disabled or the sick; and it may involve burglaries of the same premises. It may sometimes be accompanied by acts of wanton vandalism. The record of the offender is of more significance in the case of domestic burglary than in the case of some other crimes.

There are some professional burglars whose records show that from an early age they have behaved as predators preying on their fellow citizens, returning to their trade almost as soon as each prison sentence has been served. Such defendants must continue to receive substantial terms of imprisonment. There are, however, other domestic burglars whose activities are of a different character, and whose careers may lack any element of persistence or deliberation. They are entitled to more lenient treatment. It is common knowledge that many domestic burglars are drug addicts who burgle and steal in order to raise money to satisfy their craving for drugs. This is often an expensive craving, and it is not uncommon to learn that addicts commit a burglary, or even several burglaries, each day, often preying on houses in less affluent areas of the country. But to the victim of burglary the motivation of the burglar may well be of secondary interest.

Self-induced addition cannot be relied on as mitigation. The courts will not be easily persuaded that an addicted offender is genuinely determined and able to conquer his addiction. Generally speaking domestic burglaries are the more serious if they are of occupied houses at night; if they are the result of professional planning, organisation or execution; if they are targeted at the elderly, the disabled and the sick; if there are repeated visits to the same premises; if they are committed by persistent offenders; if they are accompanied by vandalism or any wanton injury to the victim; if they are shown to have a seriously traumatic effect on the victim; if the offender operates as one of a group; if goods of high value (whether actual or sentimental) are targeted or taken; if force is used or threatened; if there is a pattern of repeat offending. It mitigates the seriousness of an offence if the offender pleads guilty, particularly if the plea is indicated at an early stage and there is hard evidence of genuine regret and remorse.”


Burglary (burgi latrocinium; in ancient English law, hamesucken -In Scots law, the word hamesucken meant the feloniously beating or assaulting a man in his own house), at common law, the offence of breaking and entering the dwelling-house of another with intent to commit a felony. The offence and its punishment are regulated in England by the Larceny Act 1861.

The four important points to be considered in connexion with the offence of burglary are:

  • the time,
  • the place,
  • the manner, and
  • the intent.

The time, which is now the essence of the offence, was not considered originally to have been very material, the gravity of the crime lying principally in the invasion of the sanctity of a man’s domicile. But at some period before the reign of Edward VI. it had become settled that time was essential to the offence, and it was not adjudged burglary unless committed by night. The day was then accounted as beginning at sunrise, and ending immediately after sunset, but it was afterwards decided that if there were left sufficient daylight or twilight to discern the countenance of a person, it was no burglary. This, again, was superseded by the Larceny Act 1861, for the purpose of which night is deemed to commence at nine o’clock in the evening of each day, and to conclude at six o’clock in the morning of the next succeeding day.

The place must, according to Sir E. Coke’s definition, be a mansion-house, i.e. a man’s dwelling-house or private residence. No building, although within the same curtilage as the dwelling-house, is deemed to be a part of the dwelling-house for the purposes of burglary, unless there is a communication between such building and dwelling-house either immediate or by means of a covered and enclosed passage leading from the one to the other. Chambers in a college or in an inn of court are the dwelling-house of the owner; so also are rooms or lodgings in a private house, provided the owner dwells elsewhere, or enters by a different outer door from his lodger, otherwise the lodger is merely an inmate and his apartment a parcel of the one dwelling-house.

As to the manner, there must be both a breaking and an entry. Both must be at night, but not necessarily on the same night, provided that in the breaking and in the entry there is an intent to commit a felony. The breaking may be either an actual breaking of any external part of a building; or opening or lifting any closed door, window, shutter or lock; or entry by means of a threat, artifice or collusion with persons inside; or by means of such a necessary opening as a chimney. If an entry is obtained through an open window, it will not be burglary, but if an inner door is afterwards opened, it immediately becomes so. Entry includes the insertion through an open door or window, or any aperture, of any part of the body or of any instrument in the hand to draw out goods. The entry may be before the breaking, for the Larceny Act 1861 has extended the definition of burglary to cases in which a person enters another’s dwelling with intent to commit felony, or being in such house commits felony therein, and in either case breaks out of such dwelling-house by night.

Breaking and entry must be with the intent to commit a felony, otherwise it is only trespass. The felony need not be a larceny, it may be either murder or rape. The punishment is penal servitude for life, or any term not less than three years, or imprisonment not exceeding two years, with or without hard labour.

Housebreaking in English law is to be distinguished from burglary, in that it is not essential that it should be committed at night, nor in a dwelling-house. It may, according to the Larceny Act 1861, be committed in a school-house, shop, warehouse or counting-house. Every burglary involves housebreaking, but every housebreaking does not amount to burglary. The punishment for housebreaking is penal servitude for any term not exceeding fourteen years and not less than three years, or imprisonment for any term not exceeding two years, with or without hard labour.

Note: In the United States the common-law definition of burglary has been modified by statute in many states, so as to cover what is defined in England as housebreaking; the maximum punishment nowhere exceeds imprisonment for twenty years.

Source: Encyclopedia Britannica (1911)

Burglary: Risk and Impact: Repeat victimisation: offender accounts

This section includes:

  • Residential burglary in the United Kingdom: life-style and demographic factors associated with the probability of victimization
  • The effect of criminal victimization on a household’s moving decision
  • The impact of burglary upon victims
  • Residential burglary in London
  • Burglary victimisation, perceptions of crime risk and routine activities
  • Repeat burglary victimization
  • Property crime victimisation
  • Commercial burglars

Policy Response: Small business crime

This section includes:

  • Crime prevention
  • Solving residential burglary
  • Safer cities and domestic burglary
  • Helping the victims
  • Police response to crime
  • Private cops on the block: the role of private security in residential communities
  • Neighbourhood Watch


Burglary and related offences

This section offers a description about Burglary and related offences in the study of crimes in the English law.

Burglary and Medieval Law

Burglary and Legal History


See Also

  • Crusader Privileges (in this legal Encyclopedia)
  • List of Medieval Laws (in this legal Encyclopedia)
  • Ecclesiastical Tribunals (in this legal Encyclopedia)
  • Marriage (in this legal Encyclopedia)

Bibliographies of English Law History

  • Maxwell, William H. A Legal Bibliography of the British Commonwealth of Nations. Volume 1: English Law to 1800. London: Sweet and Maxwell, 1955-
  • Beale, Joseph H. A Bibliography of Early English Law Books. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1926.
  • Winfield, Percy H. The Chief Sources of English Legal History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1925.


See Also

Repeat offender

Further Reading

Pollock and Maitland, History of English Law; Stephen, History of Criminal Law; Archbold, Pleading and Evidence in Criminal Cases; Russell, On Crimes and Misdemeanours; Stephen, Commentaries.

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  • Article Name: Burglary
  • Author: Bernard Schwartz
  • Description: Definition of Burglary Sec 9 of the theft act 1978 defines the offence of burglary. In accordance with the work A [...]

This entry was last updated: April 3, 2017


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