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Self Defence and The Law

By: Louise Smith, barrister - Updated: 16 Nov 2016 | comments*Discuss
Force unlawful assault self-defence

In law if one person inflicts force on another the initial 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 committed. 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.


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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I done the same as you but the idiot died his 7 pals ran away I received 8 years because he died . One punch is all it took . Angry and confused I then turned into a stone cold killer because of the environment I was forced to live in . Now I killed someone by accident . The other 120 young offenders where sick in the head . Using hatchets to cut heads off. Shooting people . I had to live with these individuals. I had to man up or be ate alive. Kid you not. So I took over jessyfield Young offenders . Stabbing and slashing my way to the top. Oh yes the top. Ha ha . I didn't want to . I had to . Self preservation. I had to become Machiavellian. In everything I done. I wrecked the prison . Destroyed it . Turned it inside out . When released gangsters where destroying my community . I have 17 nieces and nephews. I wasn't letting them grow up about that , so I must have kicked about 15 20 doors in . Gangsters are cowards. Then 3 murders later I'm charged with firearms 3 years I've been waiting to go to court . 3 years enough to destroy the mind of envy man . I'm sure dale creegan killed they officers for less . I'm a product of the justice system and the failure to treat people right . I was labeled a murderer when I was 16 . It was a accidentbut charged with murder. One punch against 7 people that where a long ways from home. So they made me a murdere and society paid . Prison is a place society sends its failures . Society itself has failed .
Killer - 16-Nov-16 @ 9:49 AM
The Law in this country is selective in who is offered it's protection according to 'hidden drivers' and targets. Currently there is an emphasis on not 'criminalising' 'looked after children'. This is despite the fact that many young people come into the criminal looked after system with a history of violence. Residential staff are now being frequently assaulted and the young person concerned is given an 'absolute discharge' despite witness statements from other professionals. Magistrates are taking it upon themselves to state; 'the offense would not have been reported if it had taken place in the victims own home' . There is no consultation with the victim as to whether this would indeed have been the case. Residential staff have thus become a marginalised group who can expect no protection under law. God help anyone who tried to claim self defence if this is the mind set of our legal system.
J ustice - 30-Mar-13 @ 9:21 PM
Hi i think the the goverment in the uk have it all wrong i was arrested for an act of self defense 30 months ago i was on a night out and a male approached me kicking off i had told him i want no trouble im going back to my taxi then the male through a punch at me but because i was aware that this man was a threat i was ready for any attack as which ive always been trained for and i punched the male causing him to fall to the ground unconsious i put the male in a recovery position and informed the police myself. There were about 10 witness who told the police that he attacked me i was locked up for 18 hours and then released with a caution i was not fined or was i ordered to attend court the male had no idea what happened but i was still cautioned which because of i lost my job so all my training my NVQ lvl 2 is worthless ive never been in trouble before with police 2 years after i am still struggling money wise and the SIA will not issue me with my license to work i can get it back if i went to court but i cant afford that. To me is a joke all of it and this is why i dont have confidence in this country anymore.
iceman - 23-Dec-11 @ 2:56 AM
The reason why we are not permitted to carry self-defence implements is because "the State will protect us."Almost never are the State on-site, able to protect us.Given this stark failure to protect us, I demand that we are given a large sum of money, as compensation for that failure to be there for us, when it matters.The Government and Law cannot have it all their own way, without justified grounds for complaints from the street!
Ian McKlatchie - 17-Sep-11 @ 6:01 PM
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