We’ve all heard of cases over the years where a martial artist has applied their skills as a means of self-defence, only to later discover their attacker has pressed assault charges. In many cases, the attacker (the real criminal) wins the case. The martial artist, in their act of defending themselves, is charged.
“How can this be?”, you might ask. It’s important for any person trained in martial arts to have a basic understanding of how the law works in self-defence.
To begin with, one should not lose hope. The law states that any person is entitled to defend themselves, their property or another person. However, for situations requiring this, only ‘reasonable force’ can be applied. What is seen as reasonable will depend entirely on the situation and its progress.
Reasonable or excessive force?
In cases where excessive force has been applied, the defendant may find themselves being charged. In these cases, the onus is on this prosecution to prove the martial artist (defender) used excessive force.
An example of reasonable force may be as follows. If you believe someone is about to be murdered, then you can use any appropriate method to prevent this. However, this does not give you free license to murder the assailant. If you use a metal bar to beat the assailant to the point that there is no further risk, you are breaking the law if you continue your attack. In essence, you can only do the minimum required to stop or avoid injury.
Having said that, this does not mean that if an assailant is seriously injured you will always be charged. For example, if an antagonist who attacks you ends up in a hospital with a broken skull, it does not mean you will be charged with assault. This is because the courts do recognise that a person defending himself cannot weigh to a nicety the exact measure of his necessary defensive action. If, in a moment of unexpected anguish, a person had only done what he had honestly and instinctively thought to be necessary, that would be potent evidence that only reasonable defensive action had been taken.
Self-defence and the law for women
It is very rare that a man who attacks a woman, only to be beaten, could have her prosecuted for assault. Even in cases where she did know very clearly that her actions could cause serious injury.
For example, where a woman puts her attacker in a hospital through gouging his eyes or twisting his testicles, although her knowledge that this action would cause injury, it would be deemed as necessary, providing she felt seriously threatened. However, where a woman engages in a fight (whether with another woman or man), the basic rules for self-defence and fighting would apply.
Self-defence and the law in the form of fighting
Whilst the majority of people who take up martial arts do so with the intention to never use their skills – but for self-defence, there is a small percentage of people training whose aim is to learn to fight. In most fights involving a martial artist, it is more often these people who are involved. This often puts martial artists in a bad light with the law. Therefore when a karateka does find themselves in a fight, there are a number of things they should be aware of to ensure they can prove self-defence.
The most common place for fighting is any venue where alcohol is served. One drunk person provokes another and tries to initiate a fight. In the case of fighting, the degree of force permissible depends on whether the defendant’s actions were reasonable in the circumstances. If it were to go to court, it is important the martial artist had demonstrated by their actions that they did not want to fight. For a fight to be considered self-defence, one person must have shown that they tried to temper and disengage the situation, and perhaps make some physical withdrawal, but it was subsequently made clear that this was not possible. Again, to be deemed self-defence, once an attacker is completely stopped, no further attacks are permissible.
To be deemed self-defence, it does not mean the attacker must throw the first punch, but it obviously helps. If the martial artist has shown by their words and actions they have no intention to fight and are still provoked, providing the attacker is showing an aggressive nature and within your personal space, so much so that you felt endangered, then to throw a decisive strike is reasonable.
Self-defence and the law with weapons
Any martial artist who carries a martial arts weapon will be charged, even if they have used it only for the means of self-defence. Weapons are illegal, therefore it will be judged purely on the basis of you carrying and using an illegal weapon. If however, you were to use a weapon found in your current environment (e.g. belt, bin, broom etc.) then the same basic laws of reasonable force apply.
Self-defence and the law with kicks
It is considered that a martial artist is aware that their kicks are more powerful than their punches. Therefore, in cases of self-defence where kicks are used, it can potentially work against the martial artist. In a fight against one attacker, a kick to the groin, shin, or stomach may be deemed entirely reasonable. However, a kick to the ribs or face may be deemed excessive due to your knowledge of its danger. You would be required to show you felt endangered had you not thrown that kick.
Involvement with the police
When you are involved in a conflict to which the police are called, the following advice should be adhered to:
- Stay calm;
- Do not get dragged into an argument;
- Think about what you say, and say very little;
- Treat the police with respect and cooperate with everything they say;
- Take into account that police too are human. Sometimes the situation may initially place you in a bad light, particularly if you use an object to defend yourself. If they make an error in judgment, co-operate until you have opportunity to explain yourself.
The best self-defence within the law
Although a martial artist learns to block, punch and kick, the ultimate self-defence techniques they acquire are confidence and awareness.
Whether self-defence is required in the form of a fight at a crowded venue, or being singled out and targeted for robbery or sexual assault, confidence and awareness are your best tools. This is because any person who wishes to cause harm to another, will look for ‘an easy victim’.
A karateka who portrays a sense of confidence, i.e. head up and good eye contact will less likely be attacked. Furthermore, having an awareness of your environment means you are more able to sense danger and avoid the situation.