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What is the law on self-defence?

Self defence is legitimate if it occurs at the same time as the threat, is proportionate and the threat is unjustified

SELF-DEFENCE can be defined as the right to prevent or protect yourself or someone else against a threat such as violence or theft.

It usually involves a potential victim reacting violently against a perceived threat to stop it happening.

The rule of thumb is that you should not take matters into your own hands and leave law enforcement to the authorities. However, as it is unlikely that criminals will act in the presence of a police officer, the law sensibly recognises the potential victim may commit what would otherwise be a crime to prevent one being committed against them.

Article 122-5 of the Penal Code says "a person who, faced with an unjustified attack on themselves or a third person, simultaneously commits an act necessary to legitimate defence, shall incur no criminal liability except where the means employed are disproportionate to the seriousness of the attack."

Self defence is only legitimate if it occurs at the same time as the threat, is proportionate to it and the threat is unjustified.

Setting a wolf trap to catch a potential thief who has yet to break-in would not be classed as occuring at the same time as the threat and would be out of proportion to the risk. Stabbing an unarmed thief will also generally be an excessive reaction - as a recent case has shown.

Waiting until after the event to retaliate is revenge, not self-defence, and does not apply.

If a police officer or bailiff forces entry to a property following a warrant or court judgment, then their action is justified in law and resistance could not be qualified as legitimate self-defence.

The reaction of the victim must be proportionate to the threat. Reacting to verbal abuse by using or even threatening the use of a firearm or other weapon is disproportionate and the original victim could risk prosecution.

Courts will look at the circumstances and analyse the risk as it was perceived at the time of the incident by the potential victim. They will also compare the participants' relative physical abilities.

If the circumstances were confusing and the aggressor's behaviour appeared dangerous to the victim, an excessive but immediate "knee-jerk" reaction would be excusable, as would be an otherwise unduly violent but spontaneous reaction from a weaker victim to his larger, perhaps younger, aggressor.

If a victim shoots a burglar they believe is armed, in their house at night this would be seen as a legitimate use of reasonable force, even if the burglar is wounded or worse and is subsequently found to be carrying only a toy.

Do not be tempted however to store a shotgun ready to hand as that could be seen as advanced planning. The householder must feel under immediate threat when they retaliate - shooting a retreating burglar in the back would not qualify.

A final example would be an attempted bag-snatch by someone on a motorbike to which the victim reacts by pushing back, causing the motorcyclist to fall into the road, where he is injured or killed. That should be seen as a proportionate reaction to the original aggression.

However, Crocodile Dundee's famous use of a can of beans to knock out the receding figure of a thief, some seconds after the victim had lost the struggle to retain her possessions, would not be looked on as favourably in France as in the States - it is excessive and happened after the immediate threat.

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