Using Force: A Look at UK Law for Self-Protection Practitioners

What Do I Do NowThe use of force is one of the main focuses in most self-protection training as well as in the martial arts. However, its justification and subsequent application to real violence is also singularly the least well-addressed area of understanding. In short, if practitioners train without an understanding of the law then while their training in use of force may be excellent, their knowledge of when, how and particularly why they should be using said force will be severely lacking.

The danger of this legal ignorance is binary: while some may be unwittingly training in such a way that they are unconsciously conditioning themselves to default to excessive and unjustifiable levels of force (or to use force when it is not necessary), others may become too afraid of legal repercussions to use sufficient force when it is legitimately required. Some may be so afraid of these ramifications that, through their perception that the law offers no protection to those acting in self-defence, they will not act at all. Thus, it is important that we address both the encouragement of violent aggression and the discouragement of legitimate use of force in self-defence as in different ways both of these unfortunate situations enable victimisation.

The following is a brief look at UK self-defence law in an attempt to discuss its meaning in terms of self-protection training to better explore what it means for practitioners of self-protection methods.

Self-Defence and the Prevention of Crime

Whereas statute law more rigidly adheres to statutes that are designed to cover all eventualities, common law makes more use of judicial cases, meaning that judges can have more power to adapt to individual circumstances without Parliament having to enact legislation.

The Crown Prosecution Service’s website states that defence of the person (defending yourself or someone else) is covered by the common law. However, the following act should be borne in mind when considering the justification of self-defence:

Criminal Law Act 1967

Section 3, subsection 1 states that:

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.

Note that according to the CPS, section 3 only applies to crime and not to civil matters. So, for instance, it cannot afford a defence in repelling trespassers by force, unless the trespassers are involved in some form of criminal conduct. For matters involving property and householders, researching the Criminal Damage Act (1971) and Section 76 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 may be beneficial.

Thus we have two options for justifying use of force for self-defence in the event of an accusation of excessive or unreasonable use of force: the common law route which is concerned with support from case precedents and the statutory route where the justification is the prevention of a crime from taking place (i.e. an assault).

When Can we Use Self-Defence?

The CPS is very clear about what situations self-defence can be lawfully used in:

A person may use such force as is reasonable in the circumstances for the purposes of:

  • self-defence; or
  • defence of another; or
  • defence of property; or
  • prevention of crime; or
  • lawful arrest.

The only real ambiguity lies in this vague term: “reasonable force”. This is the point at which people typically become confused. Many practitioners and instructors can tend to gloss over this point, often leading to the following erroneous perspectives:

  • Use of any force aside from in training is strictly not allowable, and any action other than running away is difficult to justify as it demonstrates lack of control.
  • Any degree of force is justifiable if you honestly believed you were in danger at the time, as fear and adrenalisation are justifications for poor judgement of force.
  • “I’d rather be judged by 12 than carried by 6”: simply disregarding the law altogether, simplifying the situation into a polarised choice of being killed or being judged.

Armed with an understanding of the law and what it allows for, we can make better decisions about how to defend ourselves against violent crime and prepare ourselves with training that is both more efficient and more effective.

Why Use Force At All?

So you’ve used force against someone who either was using force against you or who was about to do so. What then?

This is what we must bear in mind: what then? What’s the point? There are a few reasons why people might use force against an assailant:

  • To protect oneself or someone else,
  • To punish the attacker and thus discourage further wrongdoing,
  • For enjoyment,
  • To simply express anger,
  • As an impulsive act of blind panic,
  • To alleviate boredom,
  • As an act of revenge, or
  • To impress others or find feelings of self-worth or a sense of achievement in hurting someone.

Some will sound more reasonable than others to you, no doubt. Some are more understandable than others, too. Regardless of any personal ethical considerations, how do these hold up as reasonable excuses for using force against someone? Which of these can be reasonably justified in terms of necessity?

The objective in using force against another person is simple: to prevent a worse crime from taking place. In almost every situation of assault, the goal should be to use force for one purpose only: to facilitate your escape. In many situations, escape may be possible without using any force at all, or force which is unlikely to cause actual bodily harm. In situations where that is impossible, the amount and severity of the force used must then be justifiable as a reasonable level of force for that situation.

What is “Reasonable”?

Let’s begin by taking a look at what prosecutors consider in cases of self-defence:

In assessing the reasonableness of the force used, prosecutors should ask two questions:

  • was the use of force necessary in the circumstances, i.e. Was there a need for any force at all? and
  • was the force used reasonable in the circumstances?

This in itself doesn’t really help us to understand much more clearly, but it brings us to an important understanding nonetheless: the notion of reasonableness is subjective.

The CPS goes on to quote Lord Morris:

“If there has been an attack so that self defence is reasonably necessary, it will be recognised that a person defending himself cannot weigh to a nicety the exact measure of his defensive action. If the jury thought that that in a moment of unexpected anguish a person attacked had only done what he honestly and instinctively thought necessary, that would be the most potent evidence that only reasonable defensive action had been taken …”

This shows that there is some consideration given for the fact that it is difficult to carefully make decisions in the adrenalised state that victims of violent crime are usually in. Let us consider two hypothetical situations, however to expand on this:

Situation 1:

Goodie is sitting waiting for his train. Baddie gets off another train, drunk, and tries to hit Goodie. He hits Goodie with a glancing blow and continues to swing punches. Goodie, scared and startled, slaps Baddie hard in the face and runs away while Baddie stumbled with a ringing ear and a stinging cheek.

Situation 2:

Goodie is sitting waiting for his train. Baddie gets off another train, drunk, and tries to hit Goodie. He hits Goodie with a glancing blow and continues to swing punches. Goodie, scared and startled, slaps Baddie hard in the face before grabbing him around the neck and sinking his elbow into Baddie’s face seven times. Baddie passed out, and then Goodie punched him to make sure.

Both of these “Goodie” characters can argue that they were preventing a crime from taking place: Baddie was trying to hit them after all. As they were sitting down and the surprise came as an attack, simply leaving was not an option at that time. However, whereas in situation 1 the character took the opportunity to leave without using more force than was necessary to prevent further crime from taking place, in situation 2 he missed that opportunity while he was continuing to use more force than was required. In situation 2, the focus shifted from self-protection to retaliation.

This was a slightly silly and exaggerated example, but it illustrates the point.

To reiterate:

The objective in using force against another person is simple: to prevent a worse crime from taking place. 

In almost every situation of assault, the goal is to use force for one purpose only: to facilitate your escape. In many situations, escape may be possible without using any force at all, or force which is unlikely to cause actual bodily harm. In situations where that is impossible, the amount and severity of the force used must then be justifiable as a reasonable level of force for that situation. If it is enough force to prevent a worse crime from taking place, without being excessive in nature, then it is more likely to be considered reasonable.

Retreating

While retreat is the logical objective, as not being near the offender is (usually) the safest and easiest way to prevent violence, it is not mandatory for you to retreat in order to justify your actions in self-defence. In some situations, for example, it may be impossible to retreat without using any force at all (being held against your will, grabbed by the hair or clothes, etc). In others, your retreat could put others in danger (for example, if walking with someone who is elderly or infirm, running away would leave them in danger if they could not run with you). Consider the following from the Crown Prosecution Service’s website:

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. It is simply a factor to be taken into account rather than as giving rise to a duty to retreat when deciding whether the degree of force was reasonable in the circumstances (section 76(6) Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008). It is not necessary that the defendant demonstrates by walking away that he does not want to engage in physical violence: (R v Bird 81 Cr App R 110).

There are other ways that unwillingness can be demonstrated, for example through verbal and nonverbal communication. Remaining non-aggressive and attempting to calm the aggressor down, apologising for any (possibly imagined) wrongdoing, etc, are useful things to bear in mind. That said, if it is safe and possible to leave then that should always remain the clear, logical objective of any force deployment. Retreat is a greatly preferable outcome, not an absolute duty.

The CPS makes pretty clear, however, that if someone seeks out violence and instigates a violent encounter, then they are (understandably) considered the aggressor: “[…] if he started the fight, if he volunteered for it, such actions are not lawful, they are unlawful acts of violence.”

Pre-Emptive Striking

There is no rule in law to say that a person must wait to be struck first before they may defend themselves, (see R v Deana, 2 Cr App R 75). (CPS)

Section 76 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 is another important act to bear in mind, as it offers some clarification, such as:

Section 76(3) confirms the question whether the degree of force used by the defendant was reasonable in the circumstances is to be decided by reference to the circumstances as the defendant believed them to be.

This is where the term “honestly held belief” comes into things. When deciding whether a use of force was reasonable, the defence of said use of force is to be considered based on the defendant’s honestly held belief that they were either under attack or that they were under imminent threat of attack.

In short, as long as the level of force remains proportionate and reasonable, someone under imminent threat of assault need not necessarily wait to be physically assaulted before they act. A (proporionate) “pre-emptive strike” may be used if it is honestly believed to be necessary.

This is not a “get out of jail free card”, however. It does not allow people to use unnecessary, excessive levels of force without repercussion as long as they say that they believed they needed to! Section 76(4) states that “the more unreasonable the belief, the less likely it is that the court will accept it was honestly held”.

The important point to remember is that this allows for the use of force to be proactive as opposed to merely reactive, in situations where its necessity can be justified.

This act we’ve discussed also goes on to discuss “householder cases” and the use of disproportionate force, so it is another useful act to be familiar with.

A Formula for Lawful Use of Force

Broadly speaking, the following areas of self-protection understanding form a methodology whereby if one stage fails or is inappropriate to the situation, the next should then be considered to avoid escalating to unjustifiable or excessive use of force. Aside from legal considerations, for the sake of safety in terms of physical, psychological and social wellbeing physical conflict should of course be avoided at all costs. This logical methodology will help to manage such risks as well as avoid the legal repercussions of handling a situation of self-protection poorly.

Stage 1 – Threat Awareness and Threat Evaluation:

‘Threat awareness’ is a state of being whereby an individual is maintaining the ability to perceive and cognitively react to an event or quality of their surroundings.

Through threat awareness, understand the situation to the best of your ability. Through threat avoidance, decide whether you can escape without combat. Simply put, if you can see a potential situation beginning to escalate early enough, you can simply leave. Threat evaluation should be a theoretically informed approach, meaning that it stems from an understanding of the area you’re in, the nature of violent crime, etc. Do some research and educate yourself if you can. That said, never ignore your gut feeling. If a situation doesn’t feel right, leave.

Stage 2 – Threat Avoidance:

This can either be passive avoidance (not going to areas where you know bad things are likely to happen) or active avoidance (walking or running away). If you remove yourself from the situation, you’ve prevented the crime from taking place without using force.

Stage 3 – Communication:

If the above fails or is not viable, then communication may be a way to end the situation without violence. This communication, verbal and nonverbal, could be placatative, deceptive, distracting or intimidating depending on the situation and what it calls for at that moment. If immediate escape or avoidance is not viable, employ communicative strategies to effect one.

Stage 4 – Use of Force:

If the above three stages have all failed or were not viable, then force may be necessary to effect your escape. This force, as discussed above, must be both necessary and reasonable in order to be considered legally justifiable.

The Last Word

This article is not intended for legal advice and it has not been written by an expert in law. You should not take legal advice from anyone who is not qualified to give it, and I (Josh Nixon, the writer) am just a layperson who is interested in the topic as a self-protection practitioner and instructor. This article is merely an attempt to clarify the often rather vague notion that is “reasonable force” and the justification of the use of force generally, as a basic starting point for interested parties to begin their own research and learning from. The various topics such as threat awareness, evaluation and avoidance, etc will be expanded upon separately in further writing. If nothing else, this article is a reminder to all those who practise self-protection, martial arts or any related disciplines that an awareness of and respect for the law simply has to be an intrinsic part of your training mentality and methodology, or you are doing yourself a grave disservice. The nature of this subject is such that whether you are knowledgeable about it or ignorant of it, your responsibility remains the same. If excessive or unnecessary force is used and it cannot be justified, both the knowledgeable self-protectionist and the uneducated person are equally and inescapably responsible for their actions. The understanding of the law as outlined here cannot be used as an excuse to use force when you might have been able to avoid it, and it cannot be used as an excuse to use excessive levels of unreasonable force either. It is to be used, rather, to ensure a better-informed approach to your training so that no use of force is trained without consideration of not just how it should be done, but when and (perhaps most importantly) why.

For a more in-depth and excellent reference book on this topic, I recommend Understanding Reasonable Force by Mark Dawes. It is essentially a better and more in-depth look at exactly what this article has discussed. At the time of writing, it is by far the best book on the topic I have read so far. Full details of the book can be found on our Recommended Reading page.

I’ve done a fair amount of reading and have spoken about this topic with some knowledgeable people, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I am right so I encourage anyone reading this to take it merely as a starting point for their own research into the topic. In the same breath, if anything here is unclear, confusing, missing the point or flat-out incorrect please inform me and I will edit it immediately. As my research continues and my learning continues, I may well edit this to reflect new understanding or to incorporate new sources. For this reason, I will include a changelog here of when this article is edited:

Last edited on 29.08.2016: clarification of statute law, as opposed to “civil law”. Thanks to Peter Consterdine from the British Combat Association for this feedback.
Published on 21.08.2016.

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10 Questions with Dan Holloway (themartialview.com, Eiryukan Aikido and Function First)

1) Tell us a bit about yourself and your martial arts journey – how did it start?

I first started martial arts when I was 6 years old with Karate in the local church hall. I think I started as my parents wanted me to improve confidence and gain fitness, flexibility etc. I did Karate for a couple of years but then to be honest got a bit bored with it. I wanted to continue martial arts and so found an advertisement for Aikido at a local RAF base. That’s when I started and continue to teach and practice Aikido today. I’ve also done various other arts for varying degrees of time. I did MMA at Hull University for a few years under Louis Chapman as well as Jiu-Jitsu and Boxing. When I left university I spent some time in Australia training Aikido full time with Sensei Joe Thambu who is internationally recognised for his Aikido and self-defence skills. I then joined Matt Frost at Function First Lincoln and started to learn KFM, and now his new Renegade Street Tactics programme that he has just introduced after a few years of development. I feel really fortunate to have found martial arts so early and to have trained under such great people like Joe Thambu, Matt Frost, Robert Mustard and Justo Dieguez.

 

2) In our conversations we’ve mentioned the role of ‘traditional’ martial arts today as an area of particular interest. What role do they have for you personally, and for society in general today in your opinion?

I’ve actually written an article on this for my blog www.themartialview.com. It’s a complicated subject with lots of different elements to it.

You can firstly look at combat effectiveness and that’s what the early UFCs wanted to look at. Which art was the best when it came to a no holds barred kind of fight? Having trained primarily in Aikido for a number of years a constant criticism I hear for this art is that the techniques are unrealistic and reliant on the compliance of your partner. It’s true that when we first learn Aikido we work together to get the technique down, but what people sometimes don’t grasp is that the techniques are sometimes irrelevant and merely a way to understand the main principles of that art. All martial arts regardless of style work on the principles of unbalancing your opponent while keeping your own balance, neutralising the attack, and then employing power through the hips and lower body. Therefore I think all martial arts have their own element of combat effectiveness and teach the same principles, even if there is a slightly different slant. It’s dependent on the individual learning the art to keep realistic examples in mind, as well as the instructor to show how the art can be used for self-protection.

Self-protection or combat effectiveness is just one element to the martial arts though and I think that the development, fitness, self-discipline and respect that you learn are more important. Especially for children. As I’ve already said, I think the martial arts have shaped who I am today enormously and hope to continue training for the rest of my life. If martial arts were compulsory in schools and taught from an early age I think that society and people would have a lot more respect and discipline towards each other than it does at the moment! That’s just my opinion but I think the martial arts can offer an enormous amount of benefit to society today both in terms of practical self-protection, but more importantly, just improving you as a human being. The full article can be found here: http://www.themartialview.com/the-role-of-traditional-martial-arts-today/

 

3) How does self-protection fit into what you do?

Self-protection is just one element of Aikido as I’ve already discussed and it’s one that I personally like to focus on as it’s something that I enjoy and want to learn as much as I can about. Aikido is traditionally seen as a soft martial art but I again think that depends on the style and instructor teaching. I like to add realistic elements into my training and teaching, and think it’s an important aspect to Aikido that is sometimes overlooked. It’s known as the art of peace and that’s fantastic with the way it can improve people’s lives and a really important element, but I always remember that it is a martial art and needs to be treated as such. Some Aikido out there looks fake and put on to me and this just damages the reputation of those who want to learn effective Aikido; lowering the reputation of martial arts in general. Recently I’ve had the opportunity to train at Function First Lincoln, which (as is in the name) puts the function first. The head coach, Matt Frost, has led an incredible life and gained some real insight into real world violence and self-protection and so in terms of effective self-protection I don’t think you can get a whole lot better than him. You can read all about him and his experiences again in my 3-part interview on my blog.

 

4) What motivates you in your training? How do you get yourself going when you’re not in the mood or you have other things to do?

To be honest with you, I’m normally in the mood to train as it’s just something I’ve done for so long it comes naturally to me. When I was training in Australia I was training 6 days a week, for sometimes 7-8 hours a day in 40 degree heat. That was tough and there were a lot of times when I didn’t want to train. When that happened I remembered I was here to learn from the best and needed to make the most of my time there and so tried to improve one thing per lesson, no matter how big or small. That kept me focussed and gave me a realistic goal I could achieve after every lesson.

 

5) What would you say is the most important skill or attribute for a teacher?

I think patience and being able to communicate effectively are two majorly important aspects. You need to be patient and understand that people have different learning styles, or learn at different paces and the content needs to be fun and personal enough to ring true with people. I think the use of humour is really important as well as it can just make people feel at ease and be more receptive to the knowledge you are trying to pass along. Safe International recently wrote a great article about the use of humour in their self-protection courses which can be found here: http://safeinternational.biz/blog/2014/03/12/humour-is-the-missing-link-in-most-self-defense-courses-2/

 

6) What would you say is the most important aspect of your training, skill you develop or attribute you cultivate in your training and teaching?

In terms of learning from Matt at Function First Lincoln I’m still just a beginner and so am taking in everything I can to do with Renegade Street Tactics and thinking how it applies to what I’ve already studied before as for me there is quite a lot of crossover. In terms of my Aikido I’m trying to increase the speed and fluidity of my techniques so they become more effective and rapid.

 

7) What do you like to do aside from training and teaching? What interests you?

Music and martial arts are big parts of my life. I’ve played the guitar and piano for a number of years and think it takes that same discipline to learn an instrument as a martial art. The hours you have to spend trying to nail the chord progression or riff to a song is the same hours you spend trying to nail the technique and so to me again there’s a great crossover with both!

 

8) What advice do you have for students out there reading this?

Enjoy your training! If you’re really into it you will be for the long run as in my experience, once someone gets the bug for martial arts, they have it for a very long time. Everyone has days where they feel like they don’t want to train but I’d encourage people to go anyway and once they’re there they’ll enjoy themselves. I’d also encourage people to learn from everyone and train in everything they can. Traditional guys can learn stuff from other styles and real self-defence such as Keysi by Justo, Defence Lab or Renegade Street Tactics and vice versa! Learn from everyone, train with everyone and try everything! Then, like Bruce Lee said, take what’s useful and discard what isn’t!

 

9) What advice do you have for instructors out there reading this?

I’m not really sure I can give advice as I’m sure there are a million instructors out there better than I am with more experience. I would say don’t let your own training suffer too much as a result of teaching. Your own development may take a bit of a hit when you first start instructing as your focus then turns to the students rather than 100% you, but you always need to make the time for you personally to develop and progress, working on more advanced things or recovering the basic elements of whatever art you do.

 

10) What is your ultimate goal with training and teaching? Where do you want it to lead?

The dream would be eventually to set up my own academy which teaches both traditional martial arts as well as pure self defence and fitness. That’s a long way in the future however and so for the time being I’m learning all I can, training with everyone I can and just trying to get as much experience in the martial arts as possible!

 

You can get in touch with Dan at http://themartialview.com/, join the Martial View Facebook group at https://www.facebook.com/groups/614340578652460/ or find him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/themartialview.

Review: ‘Ultimate Self-Defence Seminar’ by Peter Consterdine and Geoff Thompson

Consterdine, Peter and Thompson, Geoff. Ultimate Self-Defence Seminar. Protection Publications. 2005.

Review: Ultimate Self-Defence Seminar:
by Josh Nixon, ESP

This video is one of those well-known ones, considered essential by many, that you often hear about as an instructor. There’s good reason for that.

‘Action beats reaction’ – this is the key understanding that makes Geoff and Peter’s approach so much better than most when it comes to self-protection. Peter makes this point with a little demonstration of blocking’s uselessness in a reactive manner after a simple warmup of exercises chiefly concerned with coordination. He goes on to give what I consider the best explanation of the double-hip method of striking I’ve ever seen. There’s similarities between this and Systema’s waveform striking, which is definitely worth looking into as well if you like this method of power generation. I definitely do. It works very nicely for me, especially for body shots.

Following from this, Peter goes on to discuss and demonstrate sections on: speed and the flinch response, pre-emptive striking, UK self-defence law, adrenaline and the physiological biochemical responses of stress, pre-planning for violence, the effects of mind-altering chemicals, effective punchbag training, dialogue training, palm striking, the issues around striking with the knuckles to the face, lining up an aggressor, the biomechanics of efficient striking, zanshin, footwork, distance’s effect on striking opportunities, and the effects of surprise and shock on striking efficacy.

‘There’s no growth in comfort.’ I’ve got that up in the garage with my punchbag. For the second half, Geoff Thompson takes over and begins with hook punching on the pads, then a drill of striking with restricted movement. Afterwards, Geoff goes on to discuss and demonstrate sections on: fear and discomfort, double-hip striking towards the face, verbal distraction and deception with pre-emptive striking, usage of ‘the fence’ and shows of aggression, dynamic biomechanics in kicking (with Peter Consterdine), bodyweight grappling drills, foot tripping and trapping drills, striking from positions of biomechanical disadvantage, throwing and groundfighting, the importance of reading and learning, and attitudinal changes that are beneficial to training and to combat.

This really is a gem of a video. I personally find it quite motivational to listen to aside from the training ideas it offers. I highly recommend this one in particular as a worthy addition to any instructor’s shelf. Moreover, I would recommend this to students and prospective students too – if your instructor or prospective instructor doesn’t discuss any the kinds of things shown in this video (or especially if they’re ignorant of the concepts) then chances are they’re not worth your time. That’s a strong thing to say, I realise, but I feel that the quality of the basic information and sentiment behind this video’s content is substantial enough to warrant such a statement. The bottom line: watch this.

This video is available on DVD or for digital download (much cheaper, understandably) from http://www.peterconsterdine.com/store.htm. Further information and a download link can also be found at http://peterconsterdine.com/ultimatesd.htm.

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