In Canada, self-defence laws provide individuals with the right to protect themselves and their property under specific conditions. For those accused of assault, manslaughter, or other offences as a result of actions taken in self-defence, understanding these laws provides you with a better grasp of your situation and your case. 

In this blog, we dive into the legal definition of self-defence in Canada, the aspects of the definition that leave room for interpretation, the factors considered when self-defence is claimed, and the value of working with a criminal defence lawyer when pleading self-defence.

Legal Definition of Self-Defence

Self-defence in Canada is a legal defence for individuals accused of certain crimes, such as assault or murder, when those actions were taken to protect themselves or others from immediate harm. The Criminal Code of Canada, particularly section 34, which was amended by the Citizen’s Arrest and Self-Defence Act in 2012, provides a clear framework for understanding what constitutes lawful self-defence. It states:

  • 34 (1) A person is not guilty of an offence if
    • (a) they believe on reasonable grounds that force is being used against them or another person or that a threat of force is being made against them or another person;
    • (b) the act that constitutes the offence is committed for the purpose of defending or protecting themselves or the other person from that use or threat of force; and
    • (c) the act committed is reasonable in the circumstances.

Reasonable in the Circumstance

The act committed in self-defence is evaluated on its necessity and proportionality to the perceived threat faced. This evaluation creates a grey area, as determining the appropriateness of a person’s response can be highly subjective. For example, the use of lethal force in certain cases may be completely justified; in others it may be considered extreme. In theory, the response should not be excessive while still offering protection.

Assessing the Reasonableness of Self-Defence Actions

When self-defence is posited as a legal defence in Canadian law, the court undertakes a comprehensive evaluation of various factors to determine the reasonableness of the act committed. Section 34(2) of the Criminal Code outlines several considerations that play a role in this assessment. These factors provide a framework to understand the context and the actions of the individuals involved.

The Nature and Imminence of the Threat

The nature of the force or threat is the primary consideration, as it sets the stage for understanding the perceived danger by the defendant. The court examines whether the force was physical, verbal, or psychological and the severity of the threat posed. 

Closely related is the immediencyof the threat; the court looks into whether the threat was immediate and unavoidable, and if there were alternative means to de-escalate the situation without resorting to force.

The Individual’s Role

The individual’s role in the incident is scrutinized to distinguish between instigators and those genuinely acting in self-defence. This examination often involves understanding the events leading up to the confrontation. The use or threat of using a weapon by any party significantly impacts the court’s assessment, as it can escalate the perceived level of threat.

Personal Attributes and the Relationship of the Parties

Personal attributes of the parties involved, such as size, age, gender, and physical capabilities, are considered to evaluate the balance of power in the incident. 

The nature and history of the relationship between the parties provide insights into the context of the encounter, including any previous conflicts or threats.

Proportionality of the Act

The court also considers the proportionality of the response to the threat. Actions taken in self-defence must use reasonable force and avoid going beyond what is necessary to neutralize the threat. Finally, the legality of the force or threat faced is assessed; actions taken in response to lawful force, such as law enforcement actions, are unlikely to be justified as self-defence.

These factors collectively guide the court in determining whether the actions taken were reasonable, ensuring that self-defence claims are scrutinized thoroughly to uphold self-defence laws and prevent abuse of this legal defence.

Can You Go to Jail for Self-Defence in Canada?

If a court deems that the force used was excessive or unreasonable under the circumstances, what was intended as self-defense could result in a criminal conviction. Essentially, the key lies in proving that the force used was necessary and proportionate to the threat faced. Failure to meet these criteria can, indeed, result in imprisonment.

The Importance of Legal Representation When Arguing Self-Defence

man in suit standing with arms crossed

To effectively use self-defence as a legal argument and avoid having the interpretive aspects of the legislation used against you, legal representation is a must. A criminal defence lawyer, whether it’s a specialized assault lawyer or any other, can leverage their knowledge of legal precedents and the specific nuances of the Criminal Code to argue your case. They can see to it that all relevant factors — such as the perceived threat, the reasonableness of your response, and any pertinent history between the parties involved — are presented comprehensively and compellingly in court. 

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