Violence at Work (UK)

Use of Reasonable Force

English Law permits citizens, in certain circumstances, to use physical force on another person without it amounting to an offence of assault. For example: to protect themselves or another; prevent a crime; arrest an offender; eject a trespasser.

However, in every case, the law requires that the level of force used must be no more than reasonably necessary in the circumstances and proportionate to the severity of the harm or ‘wrong' being prevented.


Reasonably necessary

Sir James Stephens stated in the Digest of the Criminal Law (1887) that the Common Law doctrine of necessity could be described in the following manner:

‘An act which would otherwise be a crime may in some cases be excused if the person accused can show that it was done only in order to avoid consequences which could not otherwise be avoided and which, if they had followed, would have inflicted upon him or others whom he was bound to protect inevitable and irreparable evil, that no more was done than was reasonably necessary for that purpose, and that the evil inflicted by it was not disproportionate to the evil avoided'.


In the circumstances

Whether or not the level of force used was more than was reasonably necessary (i.e. excessive) in the circumstances, is always going to be a matter of opinion – and what the accused believed is crucial.

A court must always consider a case on the basis of the circumstances as the accused honestly believed them to be - unless the jury decides it would have been totally unreasonable for the accused to have honestly held the belief. [1]

The jury must then go on to ask themselves whether, on the basis of the facts as the accused believed them to be, a reasonable person would regard the force used as reasonable or excessive.

To convict a person of using unreasonable force, a court must be satisfied that no reasonable person in a similar position would have considered such use of force justified.

In R.v.Beckford [1988] the court ruled: “If no more (force) is used than is reasonable to repel the attack such force is not unlawful and no crime is committed.”


Everyone has a right to defend themselves

Lord Morris in Palmer v. R [1971] stated:

"It is both good law and good sense that that a man who is attacked may defend himself…..but may only do what is reasonably necessary …"


Striking first can be lawful

In R.v.Beckford [1988] the court ruled:

“… a man 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."


Gauging the level of force

You are not expected to be able to make fine judgements over the level of force you use in the heat of the moment.

In Palmer v. R [1971], Lord Morris stated:

"….if there has been an attack so that defence is reasonably necessary, it will be recognised that a person defending himself cannot weigh to a nicety the exact measure of his defensive action."

As a general rule, the more extreme the circumstances, the more force you can lawfully use.


Acting instinctively

In Palmer v. R [1971] it was stated:

"If…in a moment of unexpected anguish a person had done what he honestly and instinctively thought was necessary - that would be most potent evidence that only reasonable defensive action had been taken."

As long as you only do what you honestly and instinctively believe is necessary in the circumstances that would be the strongest evidence of you acting lawfully.

[1] (R v Williams (G) 78 Cr. App R 276), (R. v Oatbridge, 94 Cr App R 367) and (Archbold 19-49) ..