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What Does 'Reasonable Force' Mean in Self Defence?

a man punching in self defense

Imagine this: You’re walking on East Hastings when a man emerges, wielding a knife. His intent is clear: to seize your wallet. He brandishes the sharp weapon but what do you do? How far are you legally allowed to go to protect yourself?

What Is Reasonable Force?

Reasonable force is the amount of force that a reasonable person would think necessary to use in a certain circumstance in order to avoid harm or damage. Ask yourself: Does the force of the defensive action seem fair in relation to the crime? Keep in mind that the law expects a person to retreat if it's safe to do so.

The Mugging Scenario: Can I Use Self Defense?

In our scenario, the use of the flashlight could indeed constitute reasonable force. Reasonable force must be proportionate to the threat. Given that you're faced with a man wielding a knife, he would be an immediate, lethal threat, so using a flashlight to defend yourself may be considered appropriate.

If you were to use the flashlight to disorient the man shining the light directly into his eyes, this is also seen as 'reasonable.' You neutralized the threat without inflicting excessive harm.

However! If you chased after him and used the flashlight to whack the attacker repeatedly, particularly if you could have escaped earlier, this might be seen as excessive force because you continued inflicting violence when his threat was neutralized.

The devil is in the details. The legal system in B.C, as well as all of Canada, uses a variety of factors to determine if it’s reasonable force including:

  • Threat Level: This means that the force employed must be proportionate to the threat faced. If someone steals your sandwich, for instance, responding with a knife wouldn't be deemed reasonable.

  • The Threat Vs. Immediate Danger: The threat must be imminent - your retaliation cannot be revenge a day later, for example.

  • Non-Lethal Response: A non-lethal force is generally considered more 'reasonable' than lethal force. A lethal response may only be considered reasonable if there was a credible and immediate threat to life.

  • Contextual & Individual Factors: Certain personal factors can be considered when deciding. An elderly person or a person with disabilities may be justified in using more force to defend themselves than a young, healthy individual.

The Battered Wife Defense: The Lavallee Case

In the Lavalee case, the defendant, a woman in a long-term abusive relationship, shot her partner after fearing another severe beating. Taking into account the context of domestic abuse, the Supreme Court ruled that her actions constituted as reasonable force.

This case illustrates how the perception of immediate danger and lack of safe retreat options can influence the judgment of 'reasonable force.'

The defendant’s psychiatrist reached an assessment that the appellant had been terrorized by Rust to the point of feeling trapped, in danger and unable to escape the relationship and the abuse.

Dr. Shane's opinion the appellant's shooting of the deceased was a final desperate act by a woman who believed that she would be murdered that evening:

“... I think she felt, she felt in the final tragic moment that her life was on the line, that unless she defended herself, unless she reacted in a violent way that she would die. I mean he made it very explicit to her, from what she told me and from the information I have from the material that you forwarded to me, that she had, I think, to defend herself against his violence.”

Reasonable Force: Final Thoughts

The self-defence laws in BC do permit you to protect yourself. However, remember to balance this right with the principle of 'reasonable force.' Be aware of your responsibilities to deescalate the situation.


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