The term ‘self-defence’ is a legal doctrine that states that a person has the right to use reasonable force to defend themselves in the event of an attack. The legislation surrounding self-defence arises from both common law and the Criminal Law Act of 1967. Under this legislation, self-defence is regarded as a ‘justification’ rather than an ‘excuse’ In these instances, if a person acts truly in self-defence then their actions are not deemed as a crime. As the lawyers’ practitioner’s text (Archbold 19-41) states;
“It is both good law and good sense that a man who is attacked may defend himself. It is both good law and good sense that he may do, but only do, what is reasonably necessary.”
This common law approach is also relevant to the application of section 3 of the Criminal Law Act 1967 which states;
“A person may use such force as is reasonable in the circumstances in the prevention of crime, or in effecting or assisting in the lawful arrest of offenders or suspected offenders or of persons unlawfully at large”.
Reasonable vs. excessive force
Whenever legal issues surrounding self-defence occur, the term ‘reasonable force’ is used. But what does this mean exactly? Well, according to Crown Prosecution Service’s (CPS) legal guidelines;
“A person may use such force as is reasonable in the circumstances for the purposes of:
- self-defence; or
- defence of another; or
- defence of property; or
- prevention of crime; or
- lawful arrest.
In assessing the reasonableness of the force used, prosecutors should ask two questions:
- was the use of force necessary in the circumstances, i.e. Was there a need for any force at all? and
- was the force used reasonable in the circumstances?
The courts have indicated that both questions are to answered on the basis of the facts as the accused honestly believed them to be (R v Williams (G) 78 Cr App R 276), (R. v Oatbridge, 94 Cr App R 367)”.
In this manner, reasonable force is regarded as an appropriate response to violence wherein the person who is attacked responds with the appropriate level of force needed to remove the threat in question. On the other hand, the use of ‘excessive force’ is when the threat of violence has been removed but a person proceeds to escalate the attack further. For instance, if Person A is punched by Person B and responds by hitting them to stop their assault them this is regarded as reasonable force. However, if Person B is incapacitated or disarmed yet Person A continues to assault them, causing grievous bodily harm, then this is regarded as excessive force. If a person is found to have acted using excessive force then the British Self Defence Governing Body states that;
“If the Court finds that the accused has used excessive force then his defence of self defence will fail and he will be guilty of the offence charged. If he has killed the other person, supposedly in “self defence”, and has been charged with murder and the Court finds that he has used excessive force, his conviction will not be reduced to manslaughter and he will be guilty of murder, provided the Court is satisfied that he intended to kill or cause serious bodily harm from which the death resulted”.
The laws surrounding defensive weapons
In the United Kingdom, the law does not recognise ‘defensive weapons’. As a result, civilians are not allowed to carry an offensive weapon, such as a knife or a gun, even if the sole purpose of carrying such a weapon is to defend yourself.
However, in certain circumstances the law does permit civilians to use ordinary everyday objects to defend themselves; provided that you have been carrying them with you for everyday purposes. In these instances items such as keys, umbrellas, torches or even a comb could be used with reasonable force to defend yourself. As the Law Dictionary website explains;
“The force used in self-defence may be sufficient for protection from apparent harm (not just an empty verbal threat) or to halt any danger from attack, but cannot be an excuse to continue the attack or use excessive force…
Examples: an unarmed man punches Allen Alibi, who hits the attacker with a baseball bat. That is legitimate self-defence, but Alibi cannot chase after the attacker and shoot him or beat him senseless. If the attacker has a gun or a butcher knife and is verbally threatening, Alibi is probably warranted in shooting him. Basically, appropriate self-defence is judged on all the circumstances. Reasonable force can also be used to protect property from theft or destruction. Self-defence cannot include killing or great bodily harm to defend property, unless personal danger is also involved, as is the case in most burglaries, muggings or vandalism”.
There are several instances wherein a person may feel that they face a genuine threat of impending physical harm even if the scenario is objectively unreasonable. If the person in question defends themselves from this perceived threat with their bare hands or a weapon then this scenario is referred to as ‘imperfect self-defence’. In these instances, the person who has defended themselves from the perceived threat is not excused from the crime of committing violence to another person, but the circumstances surrounding the use of violence and their motivations for doing so can result in the charges against them being lessened.
For example, if Person A is walking down a poorly lit street and sees Person B approaching them with their hands raised out for handshake, then Person A may misinterpret Person B’s gesture as the beginning of an attack. If Person A responded by hitting Person B then they would still face criminal charges but the severity of the charges and eventual punishment may be reduced due to the fact that Person A acted out of self-defence rather than malicious intent.
Seeking legal counsel
Although self-defence claims are relatively common in the British criminal justice system, if you have never been the victim of a crime before then the logistics of the legal system can seem incredibly daunting and complicated. As such, we always recommend seeking legal counsel if you have been the victim of an assault and you acted in self-defence. By doing so, you can ensure that your attacker faces criminal charges for their assault against you as well as protecting yourself against potential lawsuits in the future. Listed below are some of helpful resources that you can use to seek legal counsel within the UK;