Assault and defence law
The Criminal Justice Act 1988 provides that assault is a summary offence with a maximum sentence on conviction of six months’ imprisonment or a fine. The act does not provide a definition of the offence; the relevant rules are found in common law.
Words alone can constitute assault in the eyes of the law.
Assault is qualified in the eyes of the law as anything which makes the victim fear that unlawful force is about to be used against them. As such this includes verbal threats, advancing in a threatening manner and the physical act of assault itself.
- Any act which makes you fear for your safety constitutes assault.
- If the antagonist (attacker) is aggressive and moving forward, and you fear for your safety, you can legally, pre-emptively strike the first blow in self-defence.
- If an attacker is moving away from you, you may not follow and strike them – in this scenario you have assaulted them.
- You may meet force with force and use up to and including 25 per cent more force than your attacker in order to defend yourself.
- In the flash point when you have to make a split-second decision concerning whether or not to take physical measures to ensure your safety, we are all equals in the eyes of the law. This includes men, women, physically or mentally disabled people, minors, the elderly and so on.
Nick and Julian are waiting to go into an office to speak with their colleague, Ed.
Nick shows Julian a replica gun and explains that it is harmless and they decide to play a trick on Ed.
When they go into the office, Nick points the gun at both Ed and Julian and threatens to shoot them.
In this scenario, Nick has assaulted Ed, because Ed had no way of knowing that he was in no danger of being shot. However, Nick has not assaulted Julian because Julian was aware that the gun was a replica and was not in fear for his safety.
- Escape if you can. The law will not take your side if you ‘defended yourself’ when you had the opportunity to escape instead.
- Use reasonable force. The law states that you may use up to and including 25 per cent more force than your attacker in order to defend yourself.
You MUST NOT
- Strike further than is necessary in order for you to escape.
- Walk towards or chase your attacker before you strike, if you feel it necessary in order to physically defend yourself to strike the first blow.
- Threaten your attacker; this is verbal assault.
Duty of care
- You are not obliged to help a client or colleague who is being attacked. The duty of care of your employer towards you outweighs the duty of care that you have for your clients and colleagues.
- If you decide to go to the aid of a client or colleague who is being attacked and intervene physically, then the law will not necessarily protect you, particularly if the attacker is seriously injured. However, if you go to the aid of a client or colleague and the aggressor turns and attacks you, you can legally defend yourself.
Leah leaves work late, locks up and walks into the car park. She is horrified to see her colleague Meera being attacked by a strange man.
Leah runs up to the man attacking Meera and jumps on his back, scratching at his face to distract him until Meera can get away. As a result, the man is badly scarred and one eye is seriously damaged.
Leah is later convicted of assaulting Meera’s attacker.
Note: No case is really clear cut like this and the question of reasonableness comes into it. Were Leah’s actions reasonable in the circumstances, or did she go beyond what was needed to protect her colleague?
The basic law on self-defence applies if you are coming to someone’s aid, but with the added proviso that the law exists to protect all citizens, and takes a dim view of vigilante behaviour. If you are coming to the aid of a colleague or client who is being physically attacked, it is most important that you know how to keep a cool head in a crisis and can do so in the heat of the moment.
- Go to the aid of a colleague who is defending themselves adequately – even if it is simply by backing away for the exit
- Continue fighting if the attacker has stopped fighting or is trying to get away
- Use physical force if you can calm the situation down with words.
Remember that the law allows you to use 25 per cent more force than the aggressor. In a situation where there are two against one, this means that unless your colleague is effectively out of commission you must therefore use the absolute minimum of force – restraint rather than force – necessary to prevent your colleague from being injured. It can be all too easy, in this type of heated situation, to find yourself holding back the aggressor while your colleague lands a punch. This could/would land both of you in court. Remember this: if your intervention ends up in a brawl and the attacker is seriously injured (and serious can be interpreted fairly widely) then the Crown Prosecution Service will at the very least consider prosecution and you could, at best, be in for an anxious period of time.
Ideally, you should wait until you too are attacked, as in the example below. Equally, if an obviously much weaker colleague is being attacked – for instance, if a female colleague is being violently assaulted by someone who is clearly dangerous and overpoweringly stronger – then the law does not oblige you to stand by and let it happen. Just remember not to ‘take the law into your own hands’ and punish the person by injuring them after you have gained control of them or they are running away.
David and Colin are doctors at a general hospital. One day Colin walks into one of the private rooms and sees his colleague David being violently attacked by the upset relative of his patient.
Colin shouts to David to hold on and that he will go for help. Hearing this, the attacker turns and charges at Colin. Unable to get away in time Colin punches the attacker and he and David make their escape.
Later, the relative of the patient is convicted of assault and Colin is found to have acted reasonably and legally in self-defence.
That said, the Criminal Prosecution Service website advises prosecutors here that ‘A witness to violent crime with a continuing threat of violence may well be justified in using extreme force to remove a threat of further violence.’ They also advise prosecutors to consider the following regarding the burden of proof.
Burden of proof
The burden of proof remains with the prosecution when the issue of self-defence is raised. The prosecution must adduce sufficient evidence to satisfy a jury beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant was:
- not acting to defend himself/herself or another; or
- not acting to defend property; or
- not acting to prevent a crime or to apprehend an offender; or
- if he was so acting, the force used was excessive.
I know from personal experience that you have all of a millisecond to make the judgement about whether to intervene. In such a situation, the law on self-defence works much better than most people think, but not as well as it could or should.
The justice system must not only stand up, but be seen to be standing up for people if they do the right thing as good citizens. So I intend urgently to review the balance of the law to ensure that those who seek to protect themselves, their loved ones, their homes and other citizens, know that the law really is on their side – that we back those who do their duty.
Reporting an assault
If you have been put in a situation where you needed to physically defend yourself, here are some things to think about before you make a statement or report to the police or your employer:
- Was the aggressor moving towards you?
- Were you moving away from the aggressor?
- Could you have run away?
Do not let attackers get away with this crime. If you are assaulted, report it!
- Did the aggressor verbally threaten you?
- Was there anyone in the vicinity or CCTV that can back up your statement?
- Did you try to talk your attacker down before you acted?