Self Defence & The Law

Something that is not always taken properly into consideration when we talk about self protection is where do we stand legally.  It’s all well and good if we successfully defend ourselves against an aggressor, but what does the law say if we end up seriously hurting or even killing that person?  Should our response always be proportionate to the attack?  How do we interpret minimum force and is it the same for everybody?  What if we make an honest mistake and end up injuring somebody?  Do we have to warn a would be attacker that we’re a martial artist?

As martial artists, we regularly train to hurt and damage other people, and to use a corny quote from Spiderman; with great power comes great responsibilities!

Ok, that’s a bit tongue in cheek, but many martial artists do have above average capabilities and it’s worth looking at our responsibilities.  Now when it comes to responsibilities, I’d say that works on 2 level; moral and legal.  For the purpose of this post, I’ll be focusing on the legal side, the moral side is a different discussion for another day.

Also, I need to specify that what I’ll be discussing here is the law in England & Wales (in the UK).  Things will vary in other countries and States so you’ll have to check the law where you live.  That said, the law is likely to be similar and this post should give you some ideas of what to look for and what questions to ask!

Leigh Simms
Leigh Simms, 4th Dan Karate & Solicitor

I also want to give credit where it’s due, a large part of the content below comes from a webinar hosted by Leigh Simms on this subject.  Leigh is a 4th Dan black belt Karate specialising in practical application of kata and is a solicitor who has studied UK Self-Defence Law in College, University and Post-Graduate courses achieving LLB with Honours and a Postgradue Diploma in Legal Practice.  And as if that wasn’t enough, Leith is author of the Amazon #1 best-selling book – UK Self- Defence Law: A Practical Guide to Understanding the Law of Defending Yourself.  So firstly, I want to thank Leigh for hosting an interesting seminar and for giving me permission to reproduce his content here.

Right, that’s the parameters, lets start:

Do I Have To Warn An Aggressor That I’m A Martial Artist?

Hmm most of us have heard that old chestnut before!  The short answer is NO!

I first heard this decades ago on a very old episode of The Saint, just before he beat the snot out of a bad guy.  I’ve heard it a number of times since, though never officially through any instructor or association!  However, there is one set of “reasonable force” rules which applies to everybody regardless of martial arts experience (or lack of)!

That said, if you should defend yourself and knock the other down, then play soccer with his head for 10 minutes, you might expect the fact that you’ve been trained to come up in the courtroom as part of the overall picture!  It won’t be helpful to you.

If I Defend Myself, Am I Required To Prove It Was Self Defence?

This one surprised me.  NO you don’t.  If you hit somebody (even in self defence), technically you’ve likely fulfilled the criteria of a criminal offence.  However, you have a lawful excuse (you were being attacked).  However, in criminal proceedings, if you claim self defence then the onus is not on you prove it in the first instance.  The burden of proof is on the prosecution to prove that it wasn’t self defence.

It should be noted that this is not the case in civil court should you be sued by the guy you defended yourself from.  In that case, it’s more on a balance of evidence rather than one side having the obligation to prove the other side acted incorrectly.

What Constitutes A Valid Claim Self Defence?

Basically, did you consent to take participate in a fight?  If you did consent, however much you may been provoked, no matter what the other person said about yo mama; the moment you decide you’re going to “sort it out”, you have consented to be part of the violence!  And however offended and aggrieved you might feel by what’s been said, you’re outside of the law and it’s not self defence.

When somebody forces you into a violent situation that you do not consent to being part of, then you can claim self defence and a number of rules change at that point.

When Can We Use Force For Self Defence?

You can defend yourself when unlawful force is being used.  This can be to protect yourself, to protect others, or to protect your property.  It can also include preventing a crime from happening or assisting a police office to make a lawful arrest should they be in need of assistance.

If however you’re being arrested, that is lawful force and you can’t claim self defence if you resist.

Am I Obliged To Use Minimum Force To Defend Myself?

Yes!  But here we open a whole can of worms.

If for example a drunken guy who is smaller than me try’s to attack me, the chances are that I would be able to control and restrain him.  If however the same guy attacks a 70 year old lady, she would have trouble controlling and restraining him; so she would need to use a more violent response.  If I were to push the guy to the ground, I could likely escape before he gets up.  If the 70 year old lady pushed him to the ground, it would be very unlikely that she could outrun him when he gets up and he’d likely catch up with her easily.  Then she’s lost all elements of surprise and he’s likely to be even more angry.  In short, she won’t get a second chance.  She has to do the job right first time.

So . . . . . . if there was a handy brick nearby and she hit him with it (assuming that all other options had failed) then she would likely get away with it.  I likely wouldn’t!  So minimum force is going to vary from defender to defender for a given threat.

Basically, it comes down to what is necessary to remove the threat of harm to yourself/others.

Does My Response Have To Be Proportionate To A Given Attack?

This is obviously related to the question above (one of the worms from that can I mentioned)!

No it doesn’t need to be proportionate, but it does need to be what you honestly and instinctively consider necessary at the time.  In the example above, I would have trouble selling it to a judge that honestly and sincerely considered it necessary to hit a guy with brick when he’s smaller than me and is too drunk to to fight properly.  A 70 year old lady might well honestly and instinctively feel that it was necessary to hit him with a brick as he could seriously hurt her, she wouldn’t be able to run away and her body being more frail would be injured much more easily.

Also, if somebody does hit you and you feel it’s necessary to hit them to stop them doing it again, then you’ll intuitively know that if the first strike does not incapacitate them, then there is a good chance that they are going to be angry and could come at you even more violently.  So if you do strike first, it might be necessary to hit them a number of times (even if they only hit you once) in order to ensure that they don’t come back at you even more intensely than before.  This is a judgement call you’ll have to make at the time.

But What If I Make A Mistake, If I Think The Threat Was Worse Then It Actually Was?

The law will take into account that under the effects of fear and adrenaline, you might make a mistake.  Adrenaline can potentially shut down a lot of our ability to think and rationalise.  Fortunately the law recognises that.  So as long as you acted honestly and instinctively, you can still claim self defence and can be acquitted.

The exception to this however, is if you were drunk or high on drugs at the time and you made the mistake due to your own altered state of mind.  It’s what’s called voluntary intoxication.

What If I Push/Hit Somebody In Self Defence & They Fall Back And Crack Their Skull Open & Die?

The key question is was your action reasonable?  It is not, what was the consequences of that action?

If somebody is assaulting you, then it is reasonable that you push them back.  We can’t always predict the outcome of a reasonable action.  So should they trip or fall, causing further damage then you are not responsible.  But again, we go back to whether or not you acted honestly and instinctively to do what was necessary.

Am I Allowed To Use A Weapon For Self Defence?

Yes, but again we go back to if you honestly and instinctively felt it was necessary to use it.  Carrying and using a katana would not be necessary against a smaller unarmed assailant.

However, it is not legal in the UK to carry a weapon, or to carry any object with the intent to use it as a weapon, (for example, a screwdriver, sharpened keys, etc); so you could end up on charges for that, even if your plea of self defence is accepted.

Am I Allowed To Strike First If Honestly Believe That I’m In Imminent Danger?

Karate lady preparing for a preemptive strike
Dawn lining me for a pre-emptive strike. Remind me not to pick on her again!

Yes!  But again, we go back to that honest and instinctive belief that it was necessary.  If somebody has their nose to your nose, is frothing at the mouth with rage and is telling you how much they’re going to tear you apart then do the same to your family; it would be suicide not to act first.  One quick head butt from them and it’s all over.  The law recognises that.

As a general rule of thumb, there are 2 indicators.  The first is that they are actually threatening you.  The second is that they are entering your personal space.  Your personal space can be marked by your own hands in what we call “the fence” position (see image to the right – hands open, palms down, elbows slightly bent).  It gives you a guard, whilst looking completely non-aggressive.  Should somebody threaten you and move close enough to compress your fence, then usually I’d say it’s time for a pre-emptive strike.  But again, bear in mind all the points above.

If I’m Threatened, Am I Required To Remove Myself From The Situation?

Yes, but only where reasonably practical.  If you’re out with your family and somebody initiates a situation; you wouldn’t be expected to run of and leave your wife and kids with an aggressor.  But where you can reasonably remove yourself from a situation, you should do so.  You can’t claim self defence if you could of walked away and a fight did not even have to occur.

 

Well that’s it, I hope you find it useful.  Just to recap, the above is the law for England & Wales (UK) and you should check the law in your own country/State.

Thank you again to Leigh Simms for his insights.  Leigh can be contacted through his website at:  www.leighsimms.com where you can download his free eBook on Understanding Kata Practically or book him for seminars on either self defence law or kata bunkai (both recommended)!  You can also contact him on Facebook through his Progressive Karate page at – https://www.facebook.com/leighsimmskarate/

If you found this of particular interest and want to look into it further, Leigh does have a book available on Amazon, just click on the image below.
Book on UK Self Defence Law

Disclosure:  The link above is an affiliate link, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.  

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