Self Defence and The Law


​In law if one person inflicts force on another the intial presumption is that an unlawful act has been carried out. The lightest of touches can amount to an assault. However, there are situations in which it is recognised that force can be inflicted without a crime having been comitted. For example:

  • Someone who takes part in a team sport is considered to have given their consent to a certain amount of force being used against them.

  • A doctor operating on a patient would be guilty of the most serious assault if the patient did not give their consent.

  • Bumping against someone on a packed train is excused as being part of everyday life.

In addition, the courts have always upheld the right of an individual to protect themselves, or other people, and have repeatedly said that they are permitted to use force or violence to do so. As long as the amount of force used is not excessive self-defence - or defence of another person - has the effect of rendering lawful what might otherwise have been a criminal act.

Public Perception of Self-Defence There has been confusion about what is permitted under the law when an individual is acting in self-defence. Some have even suggested that the law gives more protection to criminals than to honest citizens acting to protect themselves, their family and their homes.

There is a belief that citizens in the USA are in a much stronger position as far as the law on self-defence is concerned. However, although not enshrined in statute, the law in this country is very clear:

  • an individual is entitled to protect themselves or others;

  • they may inflict violence and/or use weapons to do so;

  • the level of violence may include killing the assailant; and,

  • an individual may even act pre-emptively and still be found to have acted in self-defence.

The protection offered to the honest citizen by the principle of self-defence comes in two stages.

The Crown Prosecution Service.

Before a case gets to court the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) will have to decide whether it should go that far. In reaching this decision there are various factors that the CPS will take into account, including:

  • Whether there is likely to be enough evidence to secure a conviction; and,

  • Whether a prosecution is in the public interest.

The CPS has stated that citizens who have acted reasonably and in good faith to protect themselves, their families or their property should not face prosecution for their acts.

There will be instances where the circumstances of an individual case demand that it goes to court. These may include cases where it is not clear that an individual really was acting in self-defence or where serious injuries or death have resulted. However, this does not mean that a death will automatically lead to prosecution.

Self-Defence and the Courts If an individual is prosecuted after having acted, or having claimed to act, in self-defence the courts will apply the following test:

Was the force used by the individual reasonable in the circumstances as he or she believed them to be?

The jury will have to answer this question based on the facts as the individual saw them when he acted as he did. A person is entitled to use reasonable force to protect themselves, members of their family or even a complete stranger if they genuinely believe that they are in danger or are the victim of an unlawful act, such as an assault. An individual may even take what is known as a pre-emptive strike if they honestly believe that the circumstances demand it. This means that a person can use force if they believe that there is a threat of imminent violence if they do not act first.

What if Someone Makes a Mistake? The law of self-defence can even excuse an assault, or a death, when the individual was wrong in their belief that they had to act in the way they did - when there was never any real danger. If the person genuinely believed they were acting in self-defence that can be enough. However, if the only reason the person got it wrong was because they were drunk they are unlikely to succeed in using this as a defence.

Conclusion The law as it stands offers very wide protection to those individuals who use violence to protect themselves or others. Such is the protection that an act which could otherwise have constituted a very serious offence becomes lawful. Further, it is the stated intention of the CPS that individuals who act in this way should not even find themselves in court.

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