Self Defence: What Counts As Reasonable Force?

Posted: 24 May, 2019.

When faced with threatening situations, protecting yourself is a basic human instinct – but not everyone knows what is considered appropriate action when defending themselves.

Many of us encounter situations where circumstances dictate that we need to physically protect ourselves or others. This may be in our personal lives, but it can also occur in the workplace, for example if an angry customer becomes violent.

If this happens you may have to think on your feet and act quickly, so it’s useful to know the boundaries of what you can and can’t do, to help give you the confidence to make the right decision in the moment.

What does the law say?

Legally there’s no specific definition of reasonable force as this is judged on a case by case basis. However if you can prove that your actions were necessary given what you thought at the time, then this is acceptable and you have acted within the law.

In the UK, anyone can use reasonable force to protect themselves or others if a crime is taking place. This includes fighting back in self-defence if you’re attacked or tackling an intruder to the ground. If someone else is being attacked, you can use force to stop the assault and defend yourself in the process. Generally the more extreme the threat, the more force you can lawfully use.

Is it still self-defence if you hit someone first?

You are allowed to use pre-emptive force to stop an attack happening, however you must have a good reason to do this. For example if someone clenched their fists ready to throw a punch, you could act first to restrain them.

The following questions may be asked to determine whether you acted in self-defence:

  • Was there a need for force?
  • What was their size/build compared to yours?
  • When did you stop using force?
  • Was the force malicious?

When could you find yourself in trouble?

If your action was over the top given the circumstances this could be deemed as ‘grossly disproportionate force.’ Also if you continue to use force when you’re no longer in danger (e.g. kicking or punching someone who is unconscious, or running after them with the intent to cause harm), then you are no longer acting in self-defence. You could face prosecution yourself if it can be proven that your actions were malicious or a calculated act of revenge.

What to do if you need to defend yourself

Your aim should be trying to remove the danger and bring things to a safe conclusion.

  • Assess the situation, do they have a weapon? You may have split seconds to think, but you must consider the level of risk and if the other person(s) could cause harm to you or someone else.
  • Call the police or seek help another way if possible. Is there anyone around that could assist? Do you have a personal alarm that can be activated to alert others? Some of these devices can record audio which could be used as evidence.
  • Attempt to restrain an attacker and prevent them from attacking you rather than doing anything that will physically hurt them. You can perform a citizen’s arrest if necessary to detain an individual until the police arrive.
  • If the situation becomes too dangerous then you must remove yourself immediately and get help.
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