When am I allowed to act in self-defence and how much force may I use?

This is a complicated question and there is no easy answer. The principle of self-defence (or more correctly private defence) has long been recognised by our common law and courts. However, understanding the boundaries of self-defence is not always straightforward. To further complicate matters the common law of self-defence is often confused with the statutory provisions contained in section 49 of the Criminal Procedure Act which allows for the use of force when affecting an arrest.

Despite certain similarities the two provisions should be kept separate as they have different purposes and different requirements. In this article I will focus on the common law provisions and may do a follow up article focusing on the statutory provisions.

The requirements of self-defence can be reduced to the following recognised principles:

There must be an attack, which must be;

  • already commenced or imminent and ongoing;
  • against a legally protected interest; and
  • the attack must be unlawful.

Secondly the response or defence against the attack must also comply with certain requirements, which is;

  • It must be directed against the attacker;
  • Necessary to prevent or stop the attack; and
  • Reasonable in terms of the amount of force used.

In terms of the above requirements you will not be allowed to defend yourself if you only fear that there may be an attack. The attack must already have commenced or must at the very least be imminent. You also cannot defend yourself once the attack has stopped. Somebody who runs off with your TV or drives off in your stolen car, is not considered a threat anymore and either chasing them or shooting at them as they run off would not be considered self-defence. This is possibly where the requirements of section 49 of the Criminal Procedure Act may come into play.

The attack must also be aimed against a legally protected right. Your own life, physical wellbeing and the life and wellbeing of another person would qualify as legally protected interests. The right to property is also a legally protected interest, although it will be seen as exceeding the bounds of self-defence if you use lethal force in a situation where only your right to property was threatened and not your life.

There must also not be any legal justification for the attack. A police officer trying to arrest you could qualify as an attack, but it is not unlawful as he would be carrying out his legal duties.

Your defensive action must be directed against the attacker, you are not allowed to threaten someone else; even if you believe this threat would stop the attack.

The defence, or the amount of violence used during the defence, must be necessary to prevent or stop the attack. If it is possible to stop the attack by retreating to a safe place away from the danger you should do so. However, if retreating is going to expose you to further attack there is no duty on you to retreat.

Any force you use should also be reasonable. For instance, if you produce a firearm and the attacker stops his attack any further use of force would be considered unreasonable. Should the attacker persist you would be within your rights to shoot at the attacker.

The above requirements do not dictate how or with which weapons you may defend yourself and in principle you may use any weapon available to you. If you only have access to a kitchen knife or an improvised weapon, such as a lamp stand, you are allowed to use it. If you can stop the attack faster or more effectively, and with less risk to yourself, by using a firearm then you are allowed to do so.

As there may often only be a split second in which to assess the attack the law does not require that you take the time to choose your weapon to match the attack.

All of the above principles will be judged by the court based on the reasonable man test. This means that the court will try to determine what a reasonable person would have done under similar circumstances. The court also does not judge the circumstances from the position of a relaxed arm-chair judge. They will take into consideration that a person acting in self-defence would not have time to gather all the facts before acting and that he may not be thinking clearly due to being in a stressful situation.

Wanneer kan ek in selfverdediging optree en hoeveel geweld mag ek gebruik?

Hierdie is ‘n ingewikkelde vraag wat nie altyd maklik beantwoord kan word nie. Die beginsel van selfverdediging (of om meer akkuraat te wees noodweer) word lank reeds deur ons gemenereg en howe erken. Dit is die grense van noodweer wat partykeer onduidelik is. Om sake verder te kompliseer word gemeenregtelike noodweer soms verwar met die statutêre riglyne van artikel 49 van die Strafproseswet wat handel oor die gebruik van geweld gedurende ‘n arrestasie.

Ten spyte daarvan dat daar ooreenkomste tussen die twee beginsels is, moet hulle apart gehou word aangesien elkeen sy eie doel en vereistes het. Nou gaan ek slegs op noodweer fokus en sal moontlik ‘n opvolgartikel doen oor die vereistes van artikel 49.

Die vereiste vir noodweer kan opgesom word deur die volgende regserkende beginsels:

Daar moet ‘n aanval wees wat;

  • reeds begin het, onmiddellik dreigend is en wat voortdurend is;
  • teen ‘n belang wat deur die reg beskerm word; en
  • die aanval moet onregmatig wees.

Tweedens moet die verweer teen die aanval ook aan sekere vereistes voldoen. Die verweer moet;

  • teen die aanvaller gemik wees;
  • nodig wees om die aanval te stop; en
  • redelik wees in terme van die mate van geweld wat gebruik word.

Volgens die bostaande vereistes kan jy jou nie verweer as jy slegs glo ‘n aanval mag in die toekoms plaasvind nie. Die aanval moet reeds begin het of onmiddellik dreigend wees. Jy kan jouself ook nie verweer as die aanval reeds opgehou het nie. Iemand wat met jou TV weghardloop of in jou gesteelde kar wegry, is nie meer ‘n bedreiging nie en as jy agter hulle aanhardloop of op hulle skiet sal dit nie meer as noodweer gesien word nie. Dit is in hierdie tipe situasie waar artikel 49 van die Strafproseswet ‘n rol sal speel.

Die aanval moet gemik wees teen ‘n belang wat regsbeskerming geniet. Jou eie lewe of fisieke integriteit asook die lewe en fisieke integriteit van iemand anders word deur die reg beskerm. Die reg op eiendom is ook ‘n beskermbare belang, alhoewel dit heel waarskynlik as ‘n oorskreiding van die grense van noodweer gesien sal word as jy dodelike geweld gebruik om eiendom te beskerm waar jou lewe nie terselfdertyd in gevaar is nie.

Die aanval moet ook onregmatig wees, met ander woorde, daar moet nie een of ander regverdiging vir die aanval wees nie. ‘n Polisieman wat jou probeer arresteer kan gesien word as ‘n aanval, maar dit is nie onregmatig nie aangesien hy besig is om sy wettige pligte uit te voer.

Jou verweer moet teen die aanvaller gemik wees. Jy kan nie byvoorbeeld iemand anders dreig nie, selfs al glo jy dat dit die aanvaller sal stop.

Die verweer, of die mate van geweld gebruik gedurende die verweer, moet nodig wees om die aanval te stop. Indien dit moontlik is om die aanval te stop deur na ‘n veilige plek terug te val behoort jy eerder terug te val. As dit jou egter aan verdere aanval of geweld sal blootstel, is daar geen plig om terug te val nie.

Enige geweld wat jy gebruik, moet ook redelik wees. As jy byvoorbeeld jou vuurwapen uithaal en die aanvaller stop, sal dit onredelik wees om hom te skiet. Indien die aanval nie stop nie sal jy wel geregtig wees om die aanvaller te skiet.

Die voorgaande beginsels bevat nie enige riglyne aangaande watter wapens in noodweer gebruik mag word nie en in beginsel mag enige wapen dus gebruik word. As jy net toegang het tot ‘n kombuismes of ander geïmproviseerde wapen, soos ‘n tafellamp, mag jy dit gebruik. As jy die aanvaller vinniger, effektiewer en met minder risiko aan jouself met ‘n vuurwapen kan stop, dan mag jy ‘n vuurwapen in noodweer gebruik.

Aangesien daar moontlik net ‘n oomblik kan wees waarin jy die aanval kan beoordeel, verwag die wet nie van jou dat jy ekstra tyd moet bestee om die wapen wat jy gaan gebruik by die aanval aan te pas nie.

Al hierdie beginsels sal deur die hof beoordeel word deur van die redelikemantoets gebruik te maak. Dit beteken die hof sal probeer bepaal wat ‘n redelike persoon in dieselfde omstandighede sou doen. Die hof beoordeel nie uit die posisie van ‘n ontspanne, leunstoelbeoordelaar nie en sal in ag neem dat iemand wat in noodweer optree nie noodwendig tyd sal hê om al die nodige inligting te bekom nie en dat so ‘n persoon as gevolg van ‘n stresvolle situasie ook nie noodwendig die beste besluit kan neem nie.

Dankie aan Paul Ehlers Legally Armed Agent

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