When Can You Legally Defend Yourself?
Unfortunately, it happens all too often: you’re out with some friends, minding your own business, when someone sets out to cause trouble with you. And despite your best efforts of de-escalation, you may not be able to get out of the situation easily. Or maybe you stumble around a corner and interrupt an assault already taking place, and the assailant – or assailants – focus on you instead. Or in an extreme case, you could be in a worst-case scenario: you’ve come home unexpectedly, or woken up in the middle of the night, and someone you don’t know is inside your home, and you’re in their way.
In situations like these, preparation is the key. You have to be able to act decisively and effectively, while ensuring the safety of you and your loved ones. You may be willing to do what it takes to protect them – but just how many options do you have? Do you really know when you can legally defend yourself?
(Before going any further, we do have to point out – we are not lawyers, and as with any laws, this information is subject to change! These are guidelines only, and we make no guarantees that what is true today will hold up in the future. If you are in need of detailed help, consult someone who is trained to interpret the most up-to-date laws properly).
Self-defense is a very grey legal area for many reasons, but one of the biggest ones is this – at some point when you are fighting back (if you are successful), you will no longer be defending, but attacking. Finding that point is very difficult to do after the fact, and it is up to the people involved to judge when they can safely stop fighting back and exit the situation. The crux of many cases is whether a person acted reasonably, and did no more harm than absolutely necessary; many factors are taken into account for this, like relative size, weight, gender, weapons, prior behaviour, martial arts training, and so on. But in general, if you are attacked, you are legally permitted to reasonably defend yourself until you are no longer in danger.
When it comes to weapons, you also must be careful of what you use. It is actually illegal to buy or possess pepper spray in Canada, even for self-defense – and the same goes for a bat you pull from your truck, the switchblade in your pocket, or the brass knuckles you carry around. If you have anything on your person that you intend to use as a weapon, and then use it as such, it becomes harder to believe that your actions were entirely innocent, even if they were. The lines get blurry very quickly.
In Canada, you are innocent until the Crown proves you are guilty – which means that in a trial, the prosecution would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that you were not acting in self-defense. While it’s good that the default position is in your favour, these cases are often decided on sparse testimony, personal interpretations of behaviour, and second-hand evidence, so it is rarely as black and white as that.
In general, when it comes to self-defense, less is more. As a trained martial artist, you most likely have an advantage in a physical fight, and that will be accounted for after the fact. Never cause more harm than you must, and always look for a safer option to defuse the situation before choosing to defend yourself physically. The goal of martial arts like kung fu is not to fight like in the movies – it’s to gain a valuable skill and improve the balance and harmony of your body. Use your brain as much as your brawn, and you’ll always have the upper hand.
(And remember: if in doubt, talk to the real experts. We’re not afraid to admit we might be wrong, so don’t take any of this as complete legal advice!)