Today’s question (actually the 3rd for today and the 5th in two days) is:

With seemingly increasing violence levels against emergency workers, what are the rights of a person to defend themselves?

In Zecevic v DPP [1987] HCA 26 the High Court of Australia (Wilson, Dawson and Toohey JJ with whom Mason CJ, Brennan and Gaudron JJ agreed) said:

The question to be asked in the end is quite simple. It is whether the accused believed upon reasonable grounds that it was necessary in self-defence to do what he did. If he had that belief and there were reasonable grounds for it, or if the jury is left in reasonable doubt about the matter, then he is entitled to an acquittal.

The critical issue is that any action is taken in the belief that it is necessary in self-defence.  Once you add a bit of retribution or punishment an action ceases to be self-defence.

And don’t forget the world isn’t really as shown on TV.  On TV a person acts in self-defence, the police arrive and identify the ‘good guy’ and the ‘bad guy’ (and no doubt the ‘good guy’ is the member of the emergency services) accepts their word for what happened, arrests the bad guy and everyone goes to the pub.  In reality police arrive with an open mind, ask for your version of the events, asks the other person for their version, looks for independent corroboration, consider the injuries everyone’s got etc.  That may mean having to go to police stations (perhaps in the back of a police vehicle), giving statements, calling lawyers, being fingerprinted and released on bail etc.  After some time a court may well accept that it was self-defence (or more accurately that the Crown can’t prove that it was not self-defence) and you are acquitted. That is not evidence of the system going wrong, it’s evidence that the police do not (and should not) simply accept the word of people we like to think are the ‘good guys’, that the system is complex and particularly where question arise as to what was a ‘reasonable’ response it is often best left to the community (via the jury or magistrate) to determine in open court, what that means in all the circumstances. It’s not simply a matter of saying ‘it was self-defence’ and expecting the police to leave it at that (though of course they may if the evidence is all one way).

Regardless of the process the law does say that a person, whether it’s Jo(e) Citizen, a paramedic or a police officer can use the force that they believe they need to in order to protect themselves or someone else. The level of force that is reasonable will depend on all the circumstances including the nature of the threat and what they believe may be the outcome if they do nothing.  But often discretion is the better part of valour – and to quote a friend of mine who said I can use this ‘It’s better to eat a shit sandwich for 5 minutes; than eat a t-bone through a straw for 6 months’.  Resorting to force, if there is an alternative such as withdrawing and waiting for backup, may simply escalate the matter and make it much worse.  And if you’re going to get into fights, you can’t treat the patient or fight the fire.

For more detailed discussion on self-defence see Tasmania – Alcohol affected patient refuses treatment and is not guilty of assaulting police – Part 3 (October 6, 2015).