What is proportionate self defence?

Street fights and self defence scenarios are often discussed in the most extreme terms, which leads us to the most extreme conclusions, such as:

There are no rules in a street fight, therefore I will use every method which is commonly banned in sports such as eye gouging, biting, groin strikes, weapons; I will never take the fight to the ground because I will get stomped by several people, and there are needles and glass and lava on the ground; I will maim and kill and rip and tear.

In reality, violence and confrontation run the gamut from imposing body language to nuclear weapons, and then there’s everything in between.

When we are defending ourselves, the laws in most places expect that you will use a proportionate level of force if you need to defend yourself.

If you’re a strong young man, and a 75-year-old woman tries to slap you, it might be considered reasonable and proportionate to hold her wrist to stop the slap. Biting her nose off would be considered disproportionate in most places.

So much conversation around self defence lacks nuance; here’s an example of a situation that might help us think about it.

This man was eating at a restaurant and another man has tried to steal his phone. But the victim trains jiu jitsu (this has been confirmed), and he resisted, held onto the phone and they end up in a short grappling match before the victim throws him on the ground, and then that’s it. The offender realises he’s outmatched, he submits, and just walks away.

You hear people say ridiculous things like never grapple in a street fight. Never take someone to the ground because 10 of their friends are going to appear and stomp you. If someone attacks me I’m going to bite and eye gouge and hit em with furniture and stab them etc., etc.

There might be times when those things are reasonable, but they’re often not. Maybe you can put them on the ground and it resolves without any injury at all.

If your local laws permit, maybe you can consider a citizens arrest if you can be bothered going through the process of holding him there until police arrive and providing a statement, showing up at court and so on.

You might want to check them for weapons before you let them up. And once they leave the area, you should probably leave also, in case they decide to return with a weapon. Those are things to consider.

Self defence laws usually revolve around a proportionate level of force to protect yourself and your property. Using more force than is reasonably necessary to get the job done could be considered excessive, and this is where people get into trouble.

With this scenario where I live, if the victim had done exactly the same thing and the offender is on the ground not moving and saying OK I give up I’m sorry, then the victim kicks the man in the head, he’d probably get charged with assault.

Think about what it would achieve in terms of the objective of self defence. Yes, he tried to steal your phone but he’s not any more. He’s not attacking you, or threatening you, he’s stationary on the ground in the moment. Using force was reasonable while he was trying to take the phone but that stopped.

“He deserves it, there should be revenge, he needs to learn a lesson, he should be punished,” these are not justifications of self defence, these are excuses to assault someone after a self defence situation has already resolved.

There would be other circumstances where a head stomp would be reasonable, for example he sees the man pull out a knife while he’s laying on his back there, it might be reasonable to kick him, knock him out. These situations are fluid and change moment to moment, and you have to react to what is in front of you.

If you use force, you will later have to explain why. To what end? What was your objective, was it reasonable, was it necessary? Because if you could have used a lower level of force, or done anything else to protect yourself, then it wasn’t necessary.

It’s all fine in hindsight, yes, but that’s why I’m using the term “reasonable” so often. Would most reasonable people in the same situation believe that your actions were reasonable, and necessary, and proportionate?

A rule of thumb is that when the threat stops, you stop.

Learn about the laws in your area and what is considered self defence, you might be allowed to do a lot more than what I’ve described, but you need to understand what you can and can’t do legally. Otherwise, you might start as the victim and end up being the one who goes to jail.