The following post is intended for information purposes only and is in no way to be taken as legal advice. The specifics in this article relate to aspects of UK law and each country will have its own laws which may differ from those discussed here.
What is Self-Defence?
The concept of protecting yourself from physical harm at the hands of another person, or group of people, seems fairly self-explanatory, and most people would consider this a reasonable thing to do, even if it requires you to cause harm to those who are trying to hurt you. But it’s important to understand that any time you touch another person with the intention of harming them you are technically committing an assault against that person. Fortunately, the law allows for certain ‘lawful excuses’ to be used as a justification for conduct that would otherwise be regarded as criminal, and that, for our purposes, is what self-defence is – a justifiable lawful excuse for using physical force against another person in order to protect ourselves from harm.
So, self-defence is a legal right to use force, but with that right comes a responsibility: the force you use must be considered reasonable within the particular set of circumstances of the event. Unfortunately, this idea of ‘reasonable force’ often causes a lot of confusion as to precisely what a person can and cannot do to protect themselves.
The law states (in section 3(1) of the Criminal Law Act 1967) that a person may use such force as is reasonable in the circumstances to prevent a crime, and in the case of self-defence that means an assault against ourselves. Although there is no exact definition of ‘reasonable force’ (as there are many factors that come into play to decide this), the law turns on two basic requirements to determine whether the force used was reasonable:
Necessity is basically dealing with the question of ‘when’ it is justifiable to use force, while proportionality deals with ‘how much’ force you can use. Let’s look at these two requirements individually.
When can you use force? The law says that in order to be justified in using force it must be necessary to do so. As a guide we can use the following criteria to help us judge this: we must recognise, and genuinely believe, that the person who is threatening us has the intent, the means, and the opportunity to hurt us. What does this mean? Let’s explore each criterion in more detail.
Intent – does the person in front of us intend to harm us. How can you know this? Often it is very obvious. If they are making verbal threats and telling you they are about to hurt you then you know they have the intent. Other times it may be more subtle – their body language, tone of voice, eye-contact (or lack of it) for example. People are generally quite good at reading other people’s intentions, so use your intuition and if you suspect that somebody is intending to hurt you you should prepare to act.
Means – is the person physically capable of harming you in that moment? For example, somebody may be threatening to hurt you, and their intentions are very clear and very real, but if that person is a 90-year-old woman in a wheelchair, or a six-year-old child, then it’s unlikely they will be able to cause you much harm, and therefore using force could not be justified.
Opportunity – is the person within reach of being able to hurt you in that moment? If somebody is threatening to hurt you, displaying a clear intent and has the physical means to do so, but they are shouting at you from across the street or from a 2nd floor window then, at least in that moment, they do not have the opportunity to hurt you. If you were to run across the road and use physical force then that clearly would not be justified, even though the intent and the means were there.
If all three of those criteria are met, and you genuinely believe them to be true, then you need to act decisively right away. That action may be to run away or to try to de-escalate the situation by talking, or it may be to use physical force, but in order for use of force to be justified you must have no other option other than to use it.
There is one more condition that must be met in order to justify the use of force, and that is that the threat must be imminent. This ties into the condition that it must be the only option. If somebody is threatening to hurt you, but they say they will come to your house in the morning to do it, then clearly you have the option of phoning the police rather than using force there and then which would not be justified.
So, to answer the question of when you can use force to protect yourself, you need to recognise that the assailant has the intent, the means, and the opportunity to cause you harm, and the threat of harm must be imminent, AND the use of force must be the only available course of action at that moment. If you could have just run away or left the scene but decided to use force instead this will not be justified.
An important thing to point out here is that, as we can see from the above, using force pre-emptively to prevent an assault from happening is perfectly reasonable, as long as the above criteria are met. This is contrary to what many people believe, that we must wait to be attacked before we can defend ourselves. Of course, any law that had such a condition would be useless and very dangerous, considering that a single punch or knife stab can be fatal, we could never be required to wait until then to take action.
So that covers necessity, but what about proportionality? In other words how much force can you use if it’s necessary to do so? This one is a little harder to pin down but, as a general rule, the force used (if justified by the above) or the harm that could result from the application of that force, must be proportionate to the force threatened against you, or the harm that could have resulted.
If an attacker has a knife, for example, and is threatening to use it, then the amount of harm that you could potentially suffer is extremely high, therefore a high level of force could be justified in protecting yourself in this instance.
There will be many other factors that come into play in determining the proportionality of force used. Things like the relative size and strength of both you and your attacker, the number of attackers, age, injuries or disabilities, and if there are weapons involved will all make a difference. Imagine a 50kg woman being attacked by a 120kg man who is hitting her with his bare hands. If she were to pick up a chair and hit him over the head with it that would probably be justified, as the harm she would cause would be proportionate to the harm she could have suffered by not acting. However, if the roles were reversed, and the 50kg woman was attacking the man with her bare hands, and he hit her over the head with the same chair, it would not be proportionate, and therefore not self-defence.
It’s also important to understand that the situation will change from moment to moment, and so will the level of threat. Therefore your use of force must be appropriate to the threat you are facing in that moment, meaning once the threat has passed you must not continue to use force. If somebody attacks you with a knife you are justified in using a high level of force to protect yourself, but once that person falls to the ground, or drops the knife, you are no longer in such a high level of danger, and so you must be able to control your response accordingly in order to stay within the law.
That then is a basic overview of what self-defence is (from the legal perspective) and when you can use force legally, but it’s worth taking some time to look at what self-defence is NOT. As we’ve discussed above self-defence can be used to protect us from imminent harm or the threat of it, but once that threat is gone there is no longer a justifiable reason to use force. This means that force used in retaliation or for revenge or punishment can never be considered self-defence. If you continue to use force after the threat has gone you will be committing an assault.
So as we can see from all of the above the goal in any self-defence situation should be to use enough force as is necessary in order to stop the threat and escape the danger, whilst keeping within the law so we don’t find ourselves up against an assault charge. Everything we do in that situation, and everything we train for, should be geared towards that goal. ‘Winning’ in a self-defence situation means escaping the danger and getting home safe, it’s not about ‘beating’ the opponent or teaching them a lesson. We mustn’t let our emotions or anger cloud our judgment in the moment, otherwise we may end up using excessive force and get into a lot of trouble. There is no point in successfully fighting off an attacker only to find yourself faced with a lengthy prison sentence – that doesn’t’ help the goal of getting home safe.
Now we’ve discussed what self-defence is and what it’s not, and what the law permits you to do in order to protect yourself, there’s one more thing to mention before we wrap this up, and that is the question of what you will permit yourself to do in such a situation. As we’ve seen, in order to protect yourself you may have to cause harm (perhaps serious harm) to the person attacking you, and this is something that you need to give some careful thought to. You need to give yourself the permission to act decisively in the moment should you ever need to. You need to be clear in your own mind when you’re prepared to act, and for what reasons. And you must make those decisions long before you ever need to, as in the moment of a life-or death situation, you’ll have enough to think about without the added complication of trying to pre-emptively justify your actions (or lack of actions) to yourself. Remember, using excessive force can get you into legal trouble, but not using enough (or hesitating) could get you killed. It’s a fine line, but knowing the law AND knowing your own limits and triggers, and being clear on when you’re prepared to use force should keep you alive and out of trouble.
So in conclusion, self-defence is the right to use force to protect ourselves from harm provided that the force we use is both necessary and proportionate. As long as we understand this we should be able to make rational and informed decisions so that if we are ever faced with violence we can act in a way that ensures we get home safe and we stay out of prison.
Of course the practical aspect of ‘how’ to use force is a whole other subject entirely. The physical skills needed to be able to effectively defend yourself from danger requires a deep understanding of the problems you’re likely to face, and training in the solutions to those problems.
Direct Defence Krav Maga provide training in these areas across our classes in West Sussex and Brighton.