Thursday, July 14, 2011

Mind the Gap - Part V - The Law

Use of Force

(disclaimer time - As with any issue that touches on the law, I encourage everyone to learn about the laws where they live.  Some laws will vary from place to place.  My interpretations are based on my experiences dealing with North American law and my exposure to the laws of several international countries.)

Most martial artists are pretty decent people.  In a somewhat paradoxical fashion, many martial artists are very concerned that they are going to hurt someone in an altercation.  Others believe that they can't use their skills to defend themselves because they would be criticized in a court of law.  Others even believe that black belts need to register their hands as deadly weapons. They don't.  That one gives me a chuckle.

Most laws in most countries are very similar in the area of use of force for self defense.

How much is too much?

How much force can you use to defend yourself?  How much is too much? What if your attacker gets hurt?  These are all good questions and show a responsible mind.  During an attack however, such thoughts breed hesitation. And hesitation spells disaster.  So what to do?

The Rules:

Well, here's three simple rules that will hopefully free your mind to train safely, responsibly and effectively.

#1.  Your right to defend yourself is not affected by your ability to do so.  

- Everyone has a right to defend themselves from harm (or to defend someone else).  It doesn't matter who you are or what you know.  

#2.  You can use as much force as is necessary to stop the threat.  

- This is a little more difficult to absorb.  First, there must be a threat.  You must believe you are in danger and that the other person has the ability to carry out whatever that threat is.  You are justified in using as much force as is needed to stop the threat, but that's it.  As soon as the threat has abated, you must stop.  If you don't, your use of force shifts from defense to assault in the eyes of the law.

Point #1 and #2, while accurate, will still cause many of you to have questions. There are lots of 'What if...' questions that can come up.

So here is probably the most important point of all:

#3.  If your only goal or motivation in a violent encounter is to get away, chances are the rest will take care of itself.

In Part IV, I talked about how the goal of true self defense, or the definition of success was a) surviving, b) getting away, and c) minimizing or avoiding injury.  With this in mind, let's review the first two points.

Point #1 said your right to defend yourself is not affected by your ability to do so.  So the better you are, the easier it will be to create an opportunity for you to get away.  You may end up creating an opportunity to escape using much less force than an untrained person.

Point #2 said you can use as much force as is necessary to stop the threat. You have stopped the threat when you have created an opportunity to get away.  Assuming all your other avoidance strategies didn't work, do whatever you have to do to create an exit point.  If this is the only goal of the force you use, chances are you'll be o.k.

There are also the optics of the situation.  If onlookers observed the altercation and they saw you try to talk your way out of a situation, and then when you were attacked, they watched you respond but immediately take the first opportunity to escape and get to safety and call for help, they are now positive witnesses.  On the other hand, if you stuck around and gave your attacker a couple of shots to punish them for picking the wrong guy (or gal), how would that look?  Even if the same level of injury was sustained by your attacker in both scenarios, one would be a lot easier to explain to a court.

The law typically has two parts, the criminal act and the criminal intent. Typically both must be proven to convict someone of a crime.  Acts are easier to determine.  You punched your attacker.  That was the act.  The intent is a bit trickier.  And that's where we need to observe rule #3.  If your intent was to hurt your attacker, you might be questioned about the amount of force you used, you might even be charged with assault.  If your intent was to provide an opportunity to get away and get help, chances are you won't.  It's really that simple.


If your only true goal in a violent encounter is to survive and get away, chances are the law will be on your side.  Beyond the law, you'll also be comfortable in the knowledge that whatever force you used was legally, morally and ethically sound.  When your mind is unclouded by all the 'What if questions', you will respond more quickly and more effectively to any attack. The rest will just sort of fall into place.

I hope this helps to pull together all the parts of the Mind the Gap series into a somewhat cohesive package.

Train effectively, train responsibly, train safely.


  1. Where do we stand in the eyes of the law with pre-emptive striking as a means of defence? If you felt an attack was imminent and talking wasn't going to work is it okay to strike first as a distraction so you can get away, particularly if you really felt your life was in danger?

  2. All is a crime with it often being a matter of what evidence does need to become hidden. A serious attacker will rig things before the attack, during the attack, and after the attack. The spreading of lies to justify the fight along with picking the place to attack, with convenient maiming or killing from an dependably dangerous environment. That flesh doesn't endure motor vehicles and other environmental dangers. The destruction is difficult to avoid, even the good intentioned people will do harm after the situation.

  3. Sue,

    Great question. I've been away for a couple of days or I would have responded sooner.

    There is no requirement in law for someone to wait to be attacked before taking action to defend themselves. Preemptive striking isn't illegal provided some other factors are present. Your question addressed the more important pieces. If the attack is imminent and you felt you were in danger, you have a right to do something to be safe.

    Once again, if your goal is to get away, most often you'll be in good stead legally. You may have to justify what you did, but that's fine.

    It's also important to remember that most violent crimes also includes attempts. That means if someone has decided to assault you, the assault has begun (or the attempt) when they advance on you. You need not get hurt before you protect yourself.

    Preemptive striking is less clear cut that some other areas in law, but if your motivation is pure, you've tried to talk your way out of the situation and the strike you do is meant to create an opportunity to get to safety, there is no element of criminality in your actions.

    I hope that answered your question. Thanks.

  4. Brent,

    Thanks for taking the time to make a comment. I'm not sure if there is a bit of a language barrier as I'm not fully clear on some of what you're saying, but from the parts that I do understand, you make some good points.

  5. When you defend yourself against another person, you are assaulting that person. The law is based on assuming that is an illegal act, but then provides a defence against that act - self defence.

    Your point #2 needs clarification. You can use as much force as necessary to defend yourself - but no more. The law is about proportionality. However, humans have evolved to over react. In evolutionary terms, if you entire destroy the threat or do enough simply to nullify it, they are one and the same. For evolution, make sure and ensure the survival of the species - over react and destroy the threat outofsight. This then brings evolved behavioural patterns into conflict with modern law.

    Pre-emptive 'attacks' to defend oneself. You have a legal problem there. You assaulted another person. You need to find a defence. Given the legal system is based on legislated law and precedent, you need to find a legistlated law or precedent that supports your case. Given the person did not attack you, that often becomes problematic. How many women have been jailed for killing their abusers when their abusers were not actually attacking them at the time?

    Here is a question that may intrigue. If you punch someone in the street, that is an assault and you'll be arrested for it. Why is it any different when you do it in a class or a tournament? Why is it any different when a football player (Aussie Rules of course) punches an opposing football player? Why aren't F1 drivers arrested for assault when they attack each other, or soccer players, basketball players, etc. when they engage in fisticuffs in their sports?

    The answer is important for the teaching of marital arts.