Self-defence is a complete defence to all offences of violence ranging from low level public disorder matters right through to far more serious offences including murder. If a person is prosecuted for an alleged assault and relies upon the defence of self-defence then the onus is on the prosecution to make the jury/magistrates sure that the person wasn’t lawfully acting in self-defence. The defendant does not have to prove that he was acting in self-defence, he merely has to raise it as a defence.
In order to rely upon this defence there are two elements that must be considered; firstly a person must honestly believe it is necessary to use force in the circumstances to defend themselves.
For example if Mr A is annoyed by something Mr B says and decides to push him, he cannot claim self defence because it was not necessary to do so therefore the push is an assault upon Mr B.
In contrast imagine Mr B had come towards Mr A and pushed him causing Mr A to feel he was likely to be further assaulted and at this point Mr A pushed him away then Mr A can properly claim he was acting in self defence because it was necessary to defend himself.
But what about if Mr B had come towards Mr A in a threatening manner, does Mr A have to wait until he is assaulted before he takes action? The answer is that as long as Mr A honestly and reasonably believes he is about to be assaulted then he can make a pre-emptive strike, in other words he can use force to keep Mr B away from him.
The second element in order to rely on the defence of self-defence is that the force used must be reasonable in the circumstances. This means that the force used must not be excessive.
For example if in the scenario above Mr A were to push Mr B away which was enough to deter Mr B from further attacking him then it is likely the force used by Mr A would be seen as reasonable. However imagine Mr A were to be punch Mr B repeatedly in the face causing Mr B to fall to the floor then began to kick him as he lay there. It would be unlikely that a court would view his actions as exercising reasonable force. Once a person uses too much force then they cease to act in self-defence and their actions become an assault. Put simply they stop being a victim and turn into the attacker.
You may ask, How much force can a person use in self-defence before it becomes excessive ? And, How can a person be expected to work out the right level of force in an incident which happens very quickly? The answer is that every case is different and it is not possible to set out here the correct level of force that would be lawful in any given situation. However the law does recognise that a person cannot be expected to carefully weigh up the amount of force to be used in a fast moving situation and therefore if a person uses no more force than they honestly believed to be necessary than this is a strong indication that they have acted lawfully.
The above principles apply equally to the situation where a person acts in defence of another. For example Mr A witnesses Mr B attacking Mr C, as long he honestly believes it necessary to act in defence of Mr C and as long as the force used is reasonable in the circumstances then Mr A will be able to rely upon this defence.
What will be obvious to you in reading this article is that the law on self-defence is complex. It has evolved over years, with many cases being argued in court. If you are in a position whereby you may have case where self-defence might be an issue, it is vital that you have specialist legal advice from experts who have the years of experience that we do. Make an enquiry or call us at one of our locations. We are criminal defence solicitors based in London & the Home Counties.
Nb. This guide is intended to give general information only and not intended to be used as the basis upon which Advice is given nor should it be relied upon as giving advice specific to a case or individual and Lawtons do not accept liability for anyone using this guide. Should you require specific advice in connection with a real case or situation, please contact us immediately so that we can provide specific Advice