Self Defence 101
What is self-defense?
Self-defense (or in legal terms, private defense) is an act whereby one uses reasonable force to protect himself or the people around him from being attacked or harmed by another person. It is a defense that one can raise if they accidentally cause harm or kill another while exercising self-defense.
Under what circumstances a person can raise the defense of self-defense?
Under Section 96 of the Penal Code, one is allowed to exercise self-defense under two scenarios:
- When one’s personal safety or the safety of another person is affected; or
- When one or another person’s property is being threatened by an act (or attempted act) of theft, robbery, mischief/ mischief by fire, or criminal trespass.
One can exercise the right to self-defense to protect one or another person’s body these offenses are committed or about to be committed by the assailant:
- Assault that causes one to believe that he will perish;
- Assault that causes one to believe that he will suffer from grievous/ mortal injuries;
- Assault with the intention of committing rape;
- Assault with the intention of fulfilling unnatural lust;
- Assault with the intention of kidnapping/ abducting; or
- Assault with the intention of withholding a person and it causes one to believe that he would not be able to escape or seek help for his escape.
However, there are exceptions to the rules. Under Section 99 of the Code, one cannot exercise self-defense/ there can be no self-defense if:
- A public servant (usually a police officer) who is performing his duty (usually trying to arrest) in good faith even though it is not permissible by law and there is no reasonable foreseeability that such an act will cause death or grievous harm;
- A public servant who orders a private/ normal citizen to perform an act in good faith even though it is not permissible by law and there is no reasonable foreseeability that such an act will cause death or grievous harm;
- When one has time to seek protection from a public servant; or
- When one inflicts “more harm than necessary”.
What degree of self-defense is “considered excessive/ more harm than necessary”?
In recent years, to explain the term “more harm than necessary”, the courts have been relying on what they termed “the four cardinal justification” of self-defense. In order for a claim of self-defense to succeed, all four of the justifications must be satisfied. They are:
- The person who exercise self-defense must come with a clean hand i.e. free from any fault that leads to the act of self-defense;
- There is an impending peril to life or there is a chance that one will suffer from great bodily harm. In both instances, the risk must be real or apparent;
- There must be no safe or reasonable mode of escape; and
- There must have been a necessity of taking life.
To illustrate the above points, here are some examples where the act of self-defense was considered excessive:
- In Lee Thiang Beng v PP, the court found that the police officer inflicted more harm than necessary (which resulted in the death of his opponent/ victim). This was based on the fact (amongst others) that:
- The police officer went back and taunted the victim, prompted a renewed scuffle between them;
- He was a head taller than the victim and was able-bodied compared to the victim;
- He used more force than necessary when he used a weapon to inflict a mortal wound upon the victim, all the while when he could have just subdue the victim; and
- He could have identified himself as a police officer and that itself would have stopped the whole incident from occurring.
- In Chung Tain Kong @ Chung Fook Chung v PP, the court found that the boyfriend who stabbed his girlfriend (which resulted in the death of his girlfriend) inflicted more harm than necessary because:
- Based on the facts and evidence the boyfriend gave, he had already managed to twist her arm to her back and pushed her against a wall before she fell to the ground;
- At that point, he took the knife away from her- there was literally no impending danger to the boyfriend’s life any longer. He could even have escaped; and
- There is no reasonable explanation for him to stabbed his girlfriend who was already down and unarmed.
- In Patrick Chan Fook Henn v PP, the court held that the employee noted that the employee, who was charged for murder, inflicted more harm than necessary on his employer because:
- Even though his employer initially branded a knife against him, he had successfully disarmed his employer in the ensuing scuffle; and
- Once he disarmed his employer, he could have escaped from the car that was stationary instead of continuing with the scuffle and using the knife for self-defense purposes.
While it may seem that the law on self-defense is putting a heavy burden on a person who is claiming it, it nonetheless necessary to ensure that the public at large does not take justice into their own hands even in the situations mentioned above. In most circumstances, it is better to flee than fight, unless one is left with no choice but to exercise their right to self-defense.
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