Self Defence and the Law 

- use-of-force considerations and the ‘rules of engagement’ -  

There is much to be considered with regards to the legalities of using violent action to defend oneself. The first thing being to acknowledge that self defence is violence. A popular phrase in the martial arts world is “It’s not violence if you are acting in self defence”. Funny, but last time I checked, slamming your fist or elbow into somebody’s face is a pretty violent sort of thing. The context may well be justifiable self defence, but it is still violence and is therefore a serious issue. With the gravity of this seriousness understood, one can then go on to look realistically at the laws surrounding self-protection.

As stated, there is much to be considered – hundreds of ‘what if’ scenarios with a seemingly infinite amount of variables that sway the legal scales towards either ‘justifiable’ or ‘unjustifiable’ with regards to a defender’s actions. It makes sense then, to boil down these what-if’s to find some underlying concepts and principles that the student can understand.


Principle 1 (Pre-fight):

If you chose to engage in violence when you didn't have to, it’s not self defence


You are in a club/bar/pub, somebody accuses you of flirting with his girlfriend and asks you to ‘step outside’.

Your driving has upset a fellow driver on the road, who gets out of his car when you stop at a red light and approaches the driver-side window of your car, hurling abuse at you.

A drunk person on the street has decided he doesn’t like you and starts to get in your face.

In which of the above scenarios are you legally justified in engaging in combat with your aggressor? Answer: none. While you can ‘add’ factors to the above scenarios to alter them in such a way that pre-emptive action could be justified, as they are written, there is no justification. The reason is simply that if you are not in immediate danger, or believe you are about to be put in serious danger, and you have the option of not engaging in combat, then any violence that occurs will be considered mutual or even initiated by YOU.

If you can avoid, escape or de-escalate the situation, then you should do so. Quite simply, fighting must be reserved for ‘emergency’ (remember this word) usage for it to be considered self defence.

For the previous examples to be altered in a way that would justify the use of force, consider the following variations.

You are in a club/bar/pub, somebody accuses you of flirting with their girlfriend, and grabs you to drag you outside.

Your driving has upset a fellow driver, who gets out of his car when you stop at a red light, opens the driver-side door of your car and starts to kick and punch at you while you are essentially tied to the seat by your seatbelt.

A drunk person in the street has decided he doesn’t like you, and starts to punch you in the face.


Principle 2 (Post-fight):

If you continue to inflict violence upon your assailant after they have stopped being an 

immediate threat to you, it’s not self defence


If your hand has been forced, and you have had to inflict violence upon somebody in order to ensure your own safety (or the safety of somebody else), it is important to realize that you are only justified is so doing until the threat has subsided.

When delivering concussive blows to an attacker’s head for example, there is a ladder of force-effect that offers levels of force that may cause an attacker to stop being a threat to you.

1 Attacker chooses to stop their assault as a result of being deterred by being repeatedly hit in the head

2 Attacker becomes disorientated and loses sense of equilibrium as a result of concussion to the brain

3 Attacker starts to lose consciousness as a result of concussion to the brain

4 Attacker loses consciousness completely as a result of concussion to the brain

5 Attacker dies (usually indirectly) due to concussive force on the brain. (To clarify, this usually only happens when a blunt weapon is used or if the person falls to the ground, hitting their head on a surface such as the pavement – hence the notion of indirectly causing death. There are also pre-existing medical conditions to be considered)

I train students to aim for causing full unconsciousness in an attacker, for the reason that in a real violent encounter, your strikes will rarely have the same effect they have in training (for several reasons) and therefore to aim high up on that ladder of force. However, it is also made clear that if the attacker stops being an attacker at any point leading up to this, then you are legally obliged to stop! For example, if the attacker’s offensive capability is suddenly neutralized as they become more concerned with staying on their feet due to them being so overwhelmed by the feeling of disorientation and dizziness imparted by your strikes, then the opportunity for you to escape may have been made available to you. In which case, it would behoove you both legally and tactically to make good your escape. Likewise, if your aggressor turns out to be less of a threat than they originally presented themselves as being, and they choose to cease their offensive actions and make it clear they have done so; you must stop your own violent actions. To clarify, this would be somebody who initiated the fight suddenly asking you to stop hitting them as they try to get away from you! A rare occurrence I’m sure, but one in which you have been made the attacker if you do not stop as soon as you realize that they no longer pose a threat.

With regard to knowing when to ‘stop’ there is of course the panic-factor to be considered. In a life and death situation, the defender will likely be highly emotionally charged and be suffering from diminished brain function due to the effects of adrenaline and other factors. The point being, that after having had to access this emergency survival instinct that has allowed to you fight off an attacker, it will likely be very difficult to stop at the appropriate point. And therefore, this should be addressed in training by using the appropriate drills. But even then, this will always be a factor and one that may simply rely upon the understanding of a jury…


Mid-fight misconceptions

Once, when teaching an eye compression technique where the thumb is pressed against the attacker’s eye, I was asked by one student “Is it illegal to poke people’s eyes?”

The idea that an individual ‘move’ can be considered illegal unto itself in self defence is demonstrative of not only the effect sport fighting has on the general public’s understanding of self defence, but also a desire to micro-manage fighting.

In reality, when you’re life is in danger you will do whatever you can/have to in order to survive. And so attacking people’s eyes, for example, is highly illegal if the person you’re doing it to happens to be sitting at a bus stop minding their own business. But if they happen to be trying to kill you at the time…

Like in any good self defence system, I provide my students with a use-of-force continuum that states quite clearly what level of force is appropriate for any given form of attack. I keep it as broad and general as possible, not wanting to micro-manage. However, if you remove the verbal and body language tactics it can actually be simplified further as we look only at the physical force responses. Essentially I teach two forms of self defence; the high-level force system for surviving serious violence, and a smaller collection of low-force options.

The high-level force system primarily revolves around delivering impact to an attacker’s head region as a means of stopping them from seriously harming or killing you or a third party. Hitting people in the head is serious business (as is pressing your thumb against their eye in order move their head into a better position to facilitate such striking). It is in fact, potentially lethal – much more so than karate chopping people in the throat like some instructors would have you believe - but it is also the most efficient means of stopping an attacker. One may ask then, when is it right to use such force? Well, providing that you’ve followed principles one and two, then the other person should be making it perfectly clear if you should be delivering blunt trauma to his brain. If you’re in doubt as to whether you should be hitting this person, then you probably shouldn’t be. However, if his fists are bouncing off your head or he is reaching for a knife for example, this would be a good time to start hitting him! Quite simply, this is an emergency combat response. ‘Emergency’ being a word that is not used hardly enough in the self defence world, in my opinion. People often forget that what they are training for, what they are preparing for, is what will be the worst day of their life. In a scenario in which your life depends on your ability to inflict violence upon another person, there really is no unarmed technique that in itself can be considered illegal. Any illegality would come about when said technique is used when it did not need to be (see principles 1 & 2!).

The low-force options I offer are for the much more trickier scenario of being presented with somebody who is not yet a serious threat but perhaps has the potential to become one, or is perhaps offering a low level of violence and can not be avoided or stopped by reasoning with the subject. Fortunately, you are more likely to be confronted with such a scenario as opposed to being stabbed or beaten to death. Unfortunately, these situations can be a lot more difficult to deal with – morally and legally speaking. To give an example of when low-force options may be required, imagine somebody (maybe even a friend or family member) who has had too much to drink and has become a danger to themselves and others. Perhaps they have turned their attention to you and have started to get a bit ‘grabby’. You try to gently get them off of you, but they persist further. Can/would you knock this person out? What if you can’t reason with them? What if the environment/situation won’t allow you or others to avoid them? Difficult isn’t it.

It’s for this reason that the low-force options revolve around grappling where as the high-level force system is impact-based. With basic anti- and counter- grappling concepts you can escape the clutches of those who might grab you and even restrain/contain/relocate them in a way that doesn’t cause them serious injury. Try this on somebody who is hell-bent on hurting/killing you, however, and you’ll soon see why this is reserved only for low-level threats and for use against individuals who do not possess a considerable size/strength advantage.

To summarize; don’t be overly concerned with what techniques are appropriate or not with regards to unarmed combat. Consider the bigger picture of whether you are in immediate serious danger or not.


Incident management

Apart from the two basic principles, I offer my students a small collection of tips for compounding their legal high-ground that fall under ‘pre-contact’, ‘mid-fight’, and ‘post-incident’. Consider some things that you should be doing before, during and after having to defend yourself that would make it abundantly clear to any third parties that it is indeed YOU who is the victim – even if it is the other person who may end up in hospital. Think; CCTV, eyewitnesses, police officers who arrive on the scene and possibly a jury who is having the series of events described to them.

Conclusion: take the legalities of what you are training for seriously. Understand and accept that you are training to become proficient at violence – i.e. hurting people. Know that a serious violent encounter will require a high level of force from you. If you are unsuccessful at delivering this, you could be seriously hurt or killed. If you succeed then you have likely seriously hurt somebody else – whether they forced you to do it or not, this is a serious thing and you must be prepared to have your actions questioned. 


Further information and learning

Also highly recommended is to analyze footage of real incidents on websites such as YouTube or LiveLeak. Based on the two basic principles, see if you can clearly define who the defender is and if any of their actions were justified or not.


Sharif Haque

Tactical Protection Systems


Disclaimer: I haven’t been to any sort of law school and therefore am not qualified to give legal advice in any formal capacity. What I am, is an instructor in the use of force, which involves teaching people of the legalities surrounding the subject – based on my own (humble) research and understanding.