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When can you use self-defence 
as a defence in criminal law?

If you are accused of an offence such as assault, it is very important to consider self-defence. 

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Where self-defence arises in a case, and all its legal requirements are met, you will be found not guilty or avoid prosecution completely.  Even if only some of the legal requirements are met and you are convicted, you might still receive a lower sentence.

Knowing what counts as self-defence in law can be more complicated than you might imagine.  It is essential to have specialist legal advice from the point of arrest or interview under caution. Legal advice will allow you to take advantage of all possible legal options for your defence, including heading off a prosecution completely.

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Do not delay in seeking advice.  Our specialist criminal defence lawyers are highly experienced in advising clients on using self-defence as a legal defence and effectively representing clients at every stage of police investigation and any resulting prosecution.

If you have been charged with a criminal offence, you can contact us for immediate expert representation 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

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We always work with the most experienced and best leading UK barristers, KCs (Kings Counsel). We cover all criminal cases 24/7 at the police station and court. Offices in London, Birmingham, and Manchester cover cases across England and Wales. We can offer Legal Aid and affordable Private fee agreements. We can see you the same day, including virtually. Our Senior Partners supervise all of our cases.

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We respond quickly even during out of hours. We do not get our work by paying for online adverts but based on the fact that few criminal law firms can match our 45 years of experience. Most of our cases are still from word-of-mouth recommendations from satisfied clients. We are called daily by dissatisfied clients from firms with less experience than us. We respond very quickly to new enquiries. We know what clients seek and so we update clients rapidly.

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We always keep you updated and give straightforward advice. We will get cases dropped early where the case is weak or should not be prosecuted. We will be upfront with you about where you can benefit from a good result with an early guilty plea, such as a discount on your sentence. As we work on cases across all levels with clients from all walks of life, we are excellent at giving clear, spot-on advice. As an established firm, we can allocate a whole team to your case often at short notice to secure evidence to minimise the damage to you. 

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Do you offer free consultations?

Where it is possible, we aim to provide an initial consultation to you. If we can speak to you, we can if required inform you about  –

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What is the law on self-defence?

The nature of self-defence was set out by the court in Palmer [1971] AC 814 and approved in McInnes, 55 Cr App R 551.  The court found,

It is both good law and good sense that a man who is attacked may defend himself. It is both good law and good sense that he may do, but only do, what is reasonably necessary.

The definition is also found in section 3 of the Criminal Law Act 1967:

A person may use such force as is reasonable in the circumstances in the prevention of crime, or in effecting or assisting in the lawful arrest of offenders or suspected offenders or of persons unlawfully at large.

The two key points to understand, then, about self-defence are that:

  1. You must be acting to prevent a crime e.g. to stop yourself or another being assaulted.
  2. The force you use must be considered ‘reasonable’.

When is self-defence legally allowed?

There are four basic situations where you may be legally entitled to use force against another person:

  1. Self-defence – protecting yourself from the potential for harm by another.
  2. Defence of another – protecting someone else from the potential for harm by another.
  3. Prevention of crime – preventing someone from carrying out a crime e.g. burglary.
  4. Lawful arrest and apprehension of offenders – where you have to use force to restrain or otherwise facilitate an arrest of apprehension of an offender.

What is ‘reasonable force’ in self-defence?

There are two key points:

  1. Was the use of force necessary in the circumstances? (i.e. was there a need for any force at all?)
  2. Was the force used reasonable in the circumstances?

Exactly what is considered ‘reasonable force’ will depend on the circumstances.  Importantly, it is to be decided by reference to the circumstances as the defendant believed them to be (section 76, Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008).

In other words, the level of force you used must have been no more than what was needed to deal with a threat that you honestly and reasonably believed existed at the time of the alleged offence.  The reasonableness or otherwise of that belief is critical.

It is not enough to say, for example, when justifying the use of force, that you believed someone was intending to kill you. You must show that it was reasonable under the circumstances for you to have believed that that was their intent.  They may, for example, have used a weapon or threatened to kill you.

It is important to note that you do not need to show that this was their intent, merely that you reasonably believed it was their intent.

Even if you were mistaken in your belief about the level of threat posed, the key point is whether or not the mistake was a reasonable one to have made.  A key point is whether the belief you held was an honest one. Obviously, the more unreasonable the belief, the less likely it is that the court will accept it was honestly held.

What is ‘excessive self-defence’?

Excessive self-defence is where force was used beyond what was reasonable under the circumstances.   If you are believed to have used excessive self-defence, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) may decide to prosecute you. This may depend on how far you exceeded the use of reasonable force.

If you are prosecuted for an offence related to the excessive use of force in self-defence, the fact you were trying to defendi yourself can still be critical to your defence. It might, for example, significantly reduce any penalties imposed on conviction

Do you have to be attacked first to claim self-defence?

Many people think that they must be attacked first in order to claim self-defence.  This is not always the case. Depending on the circumstances, you may be justified in making a ‘pre-emptive strike’ to prevent a crime occurring or to protect yourself.  Crucially, there is no rule in law to say that a person must wait to be struck first before they may defend themselves, (see Deana, 2 Cr App R 75).

Can you claim self-defence if you failed to retreat?

Failure to retreat when attacked and when it is possible and safe to do so, is not conclusive evidence that a person was not acting in self-defence.

Instead, failure to retreat is simply a factor to be taken into account when deciding whether the degree of force was reasonable in the circumstances (section 76(6) Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008).  There is no requirement for a person to show that they do not want to engage in physical violence by walking away first (R v Bird 81 Cr App R 110).

Can you claim self-defence if you went looking for the alleged victim?

The fact that you went looking for the alleged victim, for example to exact revenge for an earlier attack or other action, does not necessarily rule out the use of self-defence if you were then attacked.  In Rashford [2005] EWCA Crim 3377 it was held that:

The mere fact that a defendant went somewhere to exact revenge from the victim did not of itself rule out the possibility that in any violence that ensued, self-defence was necessarily unavailable as a defence.

However, an aggressor, cannot rely upon self-defence to render his aggression lawful. During a fight, blows will be struck, but an aggressor will also defend themselves by warding off blows from an opponent.  Anyone who starts a fight cannot rely on defensive actions taken within that fight to escape conviction.

Contact our criminal law defence solicitors today

For urgent specialist advice, immediate representation or to speak to us confidentially about any type of criminal charges, please do not hesitate to get in touch.

You can contact a member of our dedicated team of criminal defence lawyers in London, Birmingham, and Manchester by telephone on:

  • City of London: 0207 624 7771 - our senior Solicitors and Partners can meet by appointment in the City.
  • Brent & Camden London Office: 020 7624 7771
  • Manchester Office: 0161 835 1638
  • Birmingham Office: 0121 614 3333

Or email: solicitors@jdspicer.co.uk

Alternatively, you can fill out our quick online enquiry form, and we will get back to you as soon as possible.

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For immediate representation and advice, you can contact our Emergency Number: 07836 577 556, and we will provide you with the urgent assistance you need.

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