Self Defence - How Far is too Far?
An individual is entitled to use reasonable force to protect themselves, or other people, from violence or the threat of violence. Almost any level of violence, or use of a weapon, may be justified if the individual acted in the honest belief that their actions were necessary to protect themselves. However, the fact remains that by inflicting violence they are potentially acting unlawfully. The law cannot give free rein for individuals to act violently. So – how far is too far?
Crossing the LineThe line between self-defence and acting unlawfully may be crossed in the following ways:
- Where the violence is obviously excessive relative to the threat faced by the individual;
- Where there is clearly no longer a threat but the individual deliberately and consciously continues to use force;
- Where an individual has deliberately put themselves into a situation in order to entrap and attack an intruder or to seek revenge.
Tony MartinOne of the most famous cases in recent years on this subject concerned the farmer Tony Martin. Martin was convicted of murder after shooting dead one of two burglars who broke into his home in the middle of the night. Many people reacted with outrage at what was perceived to be an attack on the right of an individual to protect their home from intruders.
However, this was not a case where it was simply decided that a householder has no protection from the law if he kills an intruder. Several factors in Tony Martin’s case contributed to the court’s decision:
- During the trial it was decided that Martin suffered from a psychiatric disorder giving rise to a paranoid personality - A jury should take into account the specific characteristics of the individual. However, they should not make an allowance for this kind of psychiatric abnormality which can give a distorted idea of what is necessary and/or reasonable.
- Tony Martin kept a stock of illegally held weapons at his home and had previously stated his belief in a householder’s right to use extreme methods to defend his property. The facts of the case suggested that, to some extent, Martin had been lying in wait for intruders.
- The intruder killed by Martin was sixteen years’ old and was shot in the back whilst 12 feet away – Was it really necessary to shoot him dead in self-defence?
Excessive Force and the LawAn individual is not entitled to inflict violence as an act of revenge, nor should people take the law into their own hands and act as vigilantes. There is a difference between reacting to a threatening situation by using violence and actually going out looking for trouble. Some examples of what may amount to excessive force:
- If an attacker is running away and a householder inflicts injury or death at that stage the force may have been excessive. It will no longer have been necessary for the householder to use force to protect themselves.
- If a householder has managed to knock an intruder unconscious they would be stepping over the line if they then decided to inflict further injuries. At that stage they would clearly no longer be acting in self-defence.
- If a householder sets a trap for an intruder or somehow lures an intruder into his home and then injures him, it is highly unlikely that any force used will be considered to be reasonable. No force was necessary because the homeowner could have avoided the situation and was acting in a pre-meditated, not an instinctive way.
- The Director of Public Prosecutions recently gave an example of one of the few cases in the last 15 years where a householder was found to have used excessive force. In that case several people tied up a burglar, and threw him into a pit before setting him on fire. Clearly it would be hard to argue that either of the latter two actions was necessary once the burglar had been tied up.
The law offers very wide protection to honest citizens who act instinctively to protect themselves, other people or even their property. However, it does not justify violent acts by people who have made a conscious decision to inflict injury.