Self Defence and the Law


I have often been asked, over the last thirty six years, how far a person can go when trying to defend themselves from attack. The Law can be a minefield of contradictions, and I am only referring to the Law both in the United Kingdom and in my home island of Jersey. I think that my ‘guest blogger’, Don Roley, has been able to explain his views and the Laws from across ‘The Pond’ in the USA, and, I am sure that he would be more than happy to expand on the laws of self defense (American spelling) in future articles, including the use of firearms, which cannot be openly carried in Britain unless you are a Police firearms officer or military personnel on deployment.

The following definition of ‘self defence’ in Britain was taken from the website of the UK Crown Prosecution Service. Under Section 3 (1) of the Criminal Law Act 1967 it 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 persons unlfully at large.”

UK Crown Prosecution Service

While this is a very formal definition of what constitutes the law on self defence and appears to be angled towards what law enforcement officers and other legal entities can do, it also outlines the self defence laws for members of the public.

Under UK law, there is no specific definition of ‘reasonable force’, only guidelines but, if you can fully justify your use of force in a Court of Law you are unlikely to be convicted of an offence.

As well as Section 3(1) of the Criminal Law Act 1967, there is also the common law definition, which operates in three spheres;

(A) To defend oneself from attack,

(B) To prevent an attack on another person,

eg. R v Rose (1884), 15 Cox 540, where the defendant , who had shot dead his father, whilst the latter was launching a murderous attack on the defendent’s mother, was acquitted of murder on the grounds of self defence.

(C) To defend your property


In 2013, the former Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, announced the toughened up law on ‘householder defence’. This allowed for disproportionate force to be used such cases if the householder was unable to make ‘fine’ judgements in the heat of the moment so long as their actions could be deemed to be necessary. In two cases this has been used successfully.

In December 2013 Denby Collins was restrained by a house resident in Gillingham, Kent, until the police arrived, Collins having broken into the premises. The police arrived, handcuffed the accused and then found him to have become unresponsive. He was transferred to hospital, then to a neurological unit where he Stayed in a coma. Nine months later, the Department of Public Prosecutions decided not to pursue any action against the householders and, in a separate Independant Police Complaints procedure, no officers  were found guilty of any misconduct. The family of  Collins, appealed to the High Court but the appeal was rejected (Appeal panel chaired by Lord Leveson).

The Guardian newspaper covered the appeal in an article on Friday 15th January 2016 and quoted Lord Leveson as stating that with regards to the ‘householder defence’, the circumstances were found to be compatible with the European human rights legislation in that, a householder can use a disproportionate level of force against an intruder in their homes if the reasonably believe it to be necessary.

Collins v R – High Court appeal   –

This is eerily similar to another case in April this year when a burglar suffered fatal knife injuries after breaking into a pensioners home in Hither Green, South East London, collapsing outside the property. The intruder, 37 year old Henry Vincent, already wanted by Police for breaking into another pensioner’s home, died at the scene. 

The householder, 78 year old Richard Osborn-Brooks, was initially arrested on suspicion of murder but, after the circumstances were investigated, was released without charge. This led to sustained harassment from Vincent’s family and Traveller Community that necessitated Mr. Osborn-Brooks being moved to a safe house to avoid reprisals. 

Intruder Killed in Pensioner’s Home was Wanted over Another Burglary

(Left – Richard Osborn-Brooks;    Right – Henry Vincent)

One element that must be adhered to is that one cannot use ‘excessive force’. If a defendant used excessive force, this may indicate that they could have acted unreasonably in the circumstances. Therefore, there would be no valid defence in either Common Law or under the Criminal Law Act. Sometimes, in self defence classes I use the example of a person, who has successfully defended themselves by use of a ‘reasonable force’ defence technique, escalating that violence by continuing to kick the assailant on the ground several times, despite the attack having already been subdued. The multiple kicks, while the original attacker lies motionless, will, in all likelihood, be seen as the use of ‘excessive force’ and you could be facing charges of assault.

The Police definition of assault is (Ashford Police Training College, 1982),

An attempt, threat or offer, by some physical act, to inflict unlawful force upon another, with the apparent ability to carry it out.”


The pre-emptive strike has been used in physical altercations for millennia as it was seen to be a tactic to end a physical threat quickly and cleanly, however, the pre-emptive strike can be either an assault (see definition above) that cannot be argued as a self defence technique or as a major component part of a successful pleading for self defence used reasonably in the circumstances.

Lord Griffiths, of Her Majesty’s Appeal Courts, as head of the panel for the appeal against conviction (in Jamaica) of a Police Officer sentenced to death for murder of a suspect, used the defence of ‘pre-emptive strike’ to allow the appeal and subsequently have the Queen quash the conviction. This case, Beckford v R (1988) is regularly used in Court when a defendant is using ‘pre-emptive strike’ as a defence in Law.

BARON GRIFFITHS OF GOVILON QC In the County of Gwent (Rt Hon Sir William Hugh Griffiths) Life Peer A Lord of Appeal in Ordinary In robes for his Introduction in the House of Lords COMPULSORY CREDIT: UPPA/Photoshot Photo CGL 195485 06.06.1985

(Lord Griffiths of the Appeal Court whose ruling, in 1988, is used frequently when defending the use of a pre-emptive strike)

Lord Griffiths summarised that,

”A person, about to be attacked, does not have to wait for his assailant to strike the first blow or fire the first shot; circumstances may justify a pre-emptive strike”.

Importantly, the force used not only had to be reasonable in the circumstances but it could include “an honestly held belief that those circumstances were present while acting in their own defence or the defence of another”, even if the actual circumstances were found to be different at the investigative stage and subsequent prosecution. Mistaken self defence is still effective to negate the ‘men’s rea’ of a crime provided it was an honest and reasonable mistake.

Before the granting of Beckford’s appeal, Lord Griffiths stated,

”A man who is attacked in circumstances where he reasonably believes his life to be in danger or that he is in danger of serious bodily injury, may use such force as, on reasonable grounds, he thinks necessary in order to resist the attack and if using such force, he kills his assailant, he is not guilty of any crime, even if the killing is intentional.”



There are a myriad of martial arts clubs all over the world who teach the most popular (of the moment) and the more obscure martial styles from all over the globe from the usual countries, such as Japan, China, Russia, Korea, USA and the Philippines (to name but a few) alongside those lesser known arts from countries and cultures such as Mongolia, Native America, Scandinavia, India etc.

More recently, newer hybrids have emerged and become popular in the age of wall-to-wall media coverage and sponsors, such as MMA (mixed martial arts), BJJ (Brazilian Jiu Jitsu), Systema (Russia) and Krav Maga (Israeli). In fact, mixed martial arts has rapidly become a global phenomenon, covered extensively on both social media and mainstream international sports channels. Martial arts used to be something tucked away and secretive but that ceiling has been well and truly destroyed and some of the professional fighters have as high  a profile as many professional boxers and major global sports stars. All over the world there are millions of martial artists taking part in their chosen sport and/or art, from the beginner to the most experienced and talented martial artists out there. The motivation to train can come from anywhere; 

Self development, fitness, a sense of belonging, sporting prowess, striving to be the best that they can, cultural, combatting bullying, self defence; any number of reasons or combinations.

Self preservation ie. Survival, is the human being’s strongest instinct. It is often the  wish to learn ‘self defence’ that draws people to the martial arts and other pugilistic forms (I place boxing into the category of martial arts). 


In my opinion, everyone should try a martial art at least once. Contrary to the consensus view that martial arts teach you violence and fighting, what they actually teach you is far greater than any other educational tool; skills, posture, confidence, togetherness, rules, brain development, fitness, camaraderie, a sense of belonging, relaxation, breathing, muscle memory, body language recognition; the list is endless. Oh! And ‘self defence’. In relation to ‘violence and fighting’; they in fact teach you to recognise the signs of violence and violent people and situations and then tutor you on being able to assess that situation and make the best decision, for you, with which to avoid that violence, and, as guest blogger Don Roley said, TO GET HOME SAFELY.

I have been teaching the Japanese martial art of Aikido for exactly thirty-one years, but also specialise in control and restraint for Law Enforcement and self protection and awareness for women and vulnerable adults (including the differently abled) I am a former police officer and current door woman at pubs, clubs and festivals. I have been around real- life violence for over over thirty eight years and I can say this:


Over the last three decades, I have seen numerous martial arts clubs (all styles) advertising and running ‘Women’s Self Defence Classes or Courses’. While I applaud their endeavour to offer classes to equip women with tools with which to use in an attack scenario, that they may not have possessed before, there have been some unrealistic ‘promises’ about what a person will be able to achieve if attacked.

Some that I have seems over the years include;

“In 6 / 8 / 10 weeks of training you will be able to defend yourself.”

Nobody should guarantee anything of the sort. While they may give you tools and useful techniques, nobody should say that you WILL be able to protect yourself. There are many other variables to consider and nobody is invincible; the main one is being able to control the surge of adrenaline when you feel fear.

”Handle any attack and never be afraid again by doing our self defence course.”

Feeling fear is actually an essential part of preparing the human body for fight or flight. You have to feel fear to release the hormone ‘adrenaline’ in these circumstances.

”Learn from an experienced self defence instructor.”

While you may be learning techniques from a highly experienced martal arts instructor, that does not necessarily mean that they are also a ‘self defence’ instructor. Many martial arts instructors have not actually been in real situations involving extreme violence. Thus, they may be working to a belief or third party anecdotes and not reality. This you see many times from random videos published in such media platforms as You Tube and Vimeo. Many of the techniques shown are flowery, non realistic, and lacking in any understanding of the psychology of violence. This sets a dangerous precedent as people watch these clips and believe what they see. It might help you but equally it COULD BE RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR SERIOUS INJURY OR WORSE. Over confidence can be as destructive as lacking in it.

Finally, more important than the physical techniques taught in a self defence setting, are the lessons about awareness of your surroundings and common sense approaches to everyday situations, from a simple shopping trip to a night out on the town. Trying to avoid potential problems before they happen will keep you out of trouble most of the time. And, as my guest blogger Don Roley said, “self defence is about getting home safely.”

I am always available for advice on personal safety and self defence and can be contacted in a number of ways.

  • By email to
  • On Facebook on the FB page for the URBAN WARRIOR PRINCESS
  • Through my personal Facebook page at Roisin Xena Pitman



Roisin has been a martial arts instructor for over 30 years, holding a 6th Dan in Aikido and 4th Dan in Mushin-Do. She specialises in self defence for women and vulnerable adults and gives seminars, courses and talks on all aspects of self defence.

Roisin holds Nationally accredited Level 3 Teaching qualifications in:

Education & Training, Conflict Management, Self Defence, Physical Intervention in the Security Industry, Control & Restraint and Handcuffing / mechanical restraints. She also teaches the Level 2 Door Security Supervisor course.

She is a retired Police Officer and currently works in security on the Doors of pubs, clubs and at festivals.

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