What is Reasonable Force in Self-Defence?

Posted: 27 Feb, 2024.

Abuse towards employees, particularly in roles such as retail, hospitality and healthcare has risen sharply since the pandemic. When faced with threatening situations, protecting yourself is a basic human instinct – but not everyone knows where the law stands and what is legally appropriate action when acting in self-defence.

What Self-Defence is Legal in The UK?

The law on self-defence is established through a combination of common law and statute, meaning it’s not black and white.

The UK Government states “The current law permits people to defend themselves or others, to prevent crime or to protect property using force that was reasonable in the circumstances as they believed them to be. What constitutes `reasonable force’ will depend upon the circumstances of each case and is a matter for the courts to decide.”

This means that while you are allowed to use force to defend yourself, anything falling outside of ‘reasonable force’ will not qualify. For example, if the measure are obviously excessive or the act was in response to historic violence.

However, if you can prove that your actions were necessary given what you believed to be true at the time, then this is acceptable and you have acted within the law.

There are several key legal provisions in the UK that address the use of self-defence:

  • Criminal Damage Act 1971 – Provides a defence to destroying another person’s property where the destruction occurs as a result of protecting your own property, or the property of another, which was in immediate need of protection.
  • Criminal Law Act 1967 – A person has the right to apprehend another person who they have reasonable cause to suspect has committed or is committing an arrestable offence. This is also known as a ‘citizen’s arrest.
  • Section 76 of the Criminal and Justice Act 2008 – This provides guidance on whether the force used was an act of self-defence. When considering this, the court must answer two questions:
    • Did the defendant genuinely believe that the use of force was necessary in the circumstances?
    • Was the force used reasonable in the circumstances?

This guidance does recognise that it can be difficult to assess what level of force is appropriate while in the moment and so as long as you ‘only do what you honestly and instinctively believe is necessary in the heat of the moment, that would be the strongest evidence of you acting lawfully and in self-defence.’

It is also important to note that you cannot use self-defence in response to any civil infringements, such as trespassing or noisy neighbours. It can only be used if the offence against you is criminal in nature.

Additionally, under common law, violence could be used in self-defence as long as it is used in accordance with the ‘rule of law’ and the ‘preservation of the King’s Peace’. This means that it can be used in the context of upholding a peaceful and law-abiding society.

Can Self-Defence be Used to Protect Someone Else?

You do not have to wait to be attacked to defend yourself, this means that if someone else is being attacked, you can use force to stop the assault and defend yourself in the process. However, the force must be proportionate to the threat. So, the more extreme the threat, the more force you can lawfully use in self-defence.

Is It Still Self-Defence If You Hit Someone First?

You are allowed to use pre-emptive force to stop an attack from 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?
  • Was the force reasonable?
  • What was their size/build compared to yours?
  • When did you stop using force?
  • Was the force malicious?

What Classes as Excessive Self-Defence?

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 if it can be proven that your actions were malicious or a calculated act of revenge.

What are Employers’ Responsibilities Regarding Violence in The Workplace?

Every employer in the UK has a legal duty to protect employees from violence, aggression and abuse, whether this comes from service users, members of the public or from other employees. Employers also have a duty of care towards the safety and wellbeing of employees.

To fulfil their duty, employers must conduct a risk assessment covering all potential hazards facing employees. Additionally, organisations with more than 5 employees must have this recorded. Employers must then implement measures to reduce the risks identified and protect staff as far as reasonably practicable.

Although some job roles put employees at a heightened level of risk, such as healthcare workers and security guards, knowing how to protect yourself within the constraints of the law can be beneficial for all employees.

This could include implementing training programs to equip employees with the skills to de-escalate tense situations and to defend themselves if necessary.  Useful skills include identifying potential threats before they escalate, conducting dynamic risk assessments, and knowing what to do in the event of an incident. If teaching self-defence, it is worth ensuring employees are aware of the law to avoid getting themselves into trouble.

You should also implement clear procedures for reporting incidents or near-misses. Providing the option for employees to report incidents anonymously can often encourage more honest feedback, making it easier to identify patterns, address underlying issues, and continuously improve safety protocols.

In cases where violence or aggression occurs, employers must support affected employees. This may involve providing counselling services, offering time off for recovery, or collaborating with law enforcement if necessary. Employers should also review and update their policies regularly to adapt to changing circumstances and ensure continuous improvement.

What Can I Carry to Defend Myself?

In general, carrying weapons is illegal in the UK, but there are a few exceptions.

Carrying any object, even if not inherently a weapon, with the intent to use it as a weapon is considered a criminal offence.

Carrying pepper spray is not permitted as it is classified as an offensive weapon due to its use of noxious gases. While some alternative sprays claim to be non-noxious, police guidance emphasises that any item designed to cause personal injury is likely illegal.

It is legal to carry a rape alarm or personal safety service to protect yourself. Traditional rape alarms can be purchased online, in some supermarkets and through some police stations. These alarms typically work by emitting a loud, attention-grabbing sound when activated, serving as a deterrent and drawing attention to potential threats.

A personal safety service, such as Peoplesafe, works by providing a direct link to a dedicated ARC, available 24/7 to handle emergency situations. Users can carry a discreet wearable device or have access to a mobile app that allows them to raise an alarm at the press of a button. This is particularly useful when travelling alone, as our research shows, 60% of people feel unsafe travelling during unsociable hours.

With a personal safety app, users can access additional features, such as our latest solution, Travelsafe. Travelsafe allows users to enter their start point, destination and how they’re travelling, then the app calculates how long the journey should take and generates an estimated arrival time alongside a timed alarm. If they fail to reach their destination by the ETA, the alarm is activated.

Once activated, the alarm connects to the ARC, providing them with the user’s real-time location, a two-way audio channel and information from their personal profile. Expertly trained controllers then assess the situation and coordinate the appropriate response, bypassing 999 to contact the emergency services and notifying pre-determined escalation contacts if necessary.

Find out more about the difference between passive and monitored personal attack alarms.

What To Do If You Need to Defend Yourself

Your aim should always be to try 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 and/or video 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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