Can You Defend Yourself Against A Child Who Is Under The Age of Criminal Intent?
I recently had a conversation with someone who told me that their wife is having to have her neck surgically re-built with bone taken from other parts of her body.
The injury was caused by an eight-year-old child violently pulling the member of staff’s hair causing the person’s head to jerk back violently.
More recently in the news a teaching assistant who was ‘punched, pinched and kicked’ by a five-year-old boy in her reception class has been awarded £140,000 in compensation.
Now (generally speaking) a five-year-old or eight-year-old child would be classed as a minor and possibly even categorised as vulnerable, due to their young age.
As such, any training given to staff in the schools they attend or the care home they reside in to enable staff to control and restrain them may be ‘low-level’ training, involving techniques that are designed not to cause any harm to the child.
But where does a member of staff stand if they are violently attacked by a child (someone under the age of eighteen) who may also be under the age of criminal intent (which is 10 years of age in the UK, 12 years of age in Scotland) if the techniques they have been taught don’t cater for such an attack?
This is important to know because someone under the age of criminal intent cannot commit a crime in the UK, but they can still behave violently as we can see from the above examples.
“So if a child is attacking you can you act in self-defence against the child?”
This is a question I was recently asked by a retail shop owner who had a teenager in his shop who was threatening him and other staff members with violence. At one point he even threatened to kill him.
And I know this first hand because I was there.
You may be probably thinking, why don’t they call the police?
They did, but the police didn’t respond.
I also called the police and they said it wasn’t a high enough priority to dispatch offers to. Even though there were threats to kill.
In the news today the BBC News and national newspapers are running stories on police response times which show that: “Officers are now 28 per cent slower to attend a ‘Grade 1 Emergency Response’ after receiving a 999 call, according to data released by 22 of the 43 forces.
And detectives are 44 per cent slower to arrive at such incidents than nine years ago, responses from 19 forces to freedom of information requests by the BBC found.”
So what about the school or care home that only trains staff to a low level of control and restraint and who would rely on the police attending a more serious incident?
And what is a member of staff allowed to do if they are being violently assaulted and their training doesn’t work or such defences to violent assaults weren’t covered in the training?
What the law says.
Section 3 of the Criminal Law Act 1967 states that:
“A person may use such force as is reasonable in the circumstances in the prevention of crime, or in effecting or assisting in the lawful arrest of offenders or suspected offenders or of persons unlawfully at large.”
As we’ve already stated, a child under the age of criminal intent cannot commit a crime.
But with regards to self-defence the law does not distinguish a lower or upper age range for who you may need to use self-defence against.
It doesn’t state (for example)that: A person may use such force as is reasonable in the circumstances in the prevention of crime, or in effecting or assisting in the lawful arrest of offenders or suspected offenders or of persons unlawfully at large – provided they are between 18 and 65 (for example)!
This is where the Common Law applies and the case law on this is Palmer.
In Palmer it states:
“It is both good law and good sense that a man who is attacked may defend himself. It is both good law and good sense that he may do, but only do, what is reasonably necessary.”
With regards to “what is reasonably necessary”, the first question here would be was it ‘necessary’ to use force in the first place or were there other options available, like moving away from the child and/or leaving the situation and/or a place of work?
If it was ‘necessary’ to have to defend yourself then the second question would be, is what you did ‘proportionate’ to the harm that you prevented.
So if a child was threatening to kill you (as in the retail example) and moved towards you whilst reaching into his back pocket (making you believe that the child had a knife) and you struck that child in the face causing the child to fall backwards and suffer a broken nose, I would argue that the action taken, given those circumstances, was reasonable.
The Subjective and Objective Tests
Now there are two tests here. A subjective test and an objective test.
Subjectively, the action taken would be considered in relation to the facts believed by the person who took defensive action.
The objective test is: what would a reasonable person think, given all of the facts in those circumstances. In other words would a reasonable person think that the defender acted reasonably given the facts and circumstances.
And what if the person defending themselves made a mistake? Let’s say that after the event it transpired that the child didn’t have a knife in their back pocket but reached behind them to scratch their lower back.
The general approach of the law is that it allows such force to be used as is reasonable in the circumstances as the defendant believes them to be, even if his belief was a mistaken one and (if so) even if his mistake was an unreasonable one.
In the case of Williams (Gladstone)  3 All ER 411 the Judge (Lord Lane) concluded that:
“Even if the jury come to the conclusion that the mistake was an unreasonable one, if the defendant may genuinely have been labouring under it, he is entitled to rely on it”. (Lord Lane CJ).
So, provided that the mistaken belief was a reasonable one there is no issue there because by law you are innocent until proven guilty and it is for the prosecution to prove any guilt beyond reasonable doubt.
One thing I will say before I finish is that once the threat is eliminated or reduced any further defensive action may be considered an assault.
So going back to the child threatening to kill you, if you use force and that stops the attack (or believed attack) then you can’t justify any further action like kicking the child why they are on the floor, especially if that further action was motivated by some form of revenge or retaliation etc.
But the bottom line is, everyone in the UK has the right to defend themselves and go to the defence of others.
And this right extends to defending yourself against a child of any age.
If you have any questions please don’t hesitate to get in touch.
Feel free to leave a comment below.
And if you wish to share this in the hope it will help someone else you are most welcome to.
If you’d like to qualify as a properly trained BTEC Level 3 Self-Defence Instructor you can find out more about that here – https://nfps.info/btec-level-3-self-defence-trainer/
Other Related Blog Posts and Videos:
Bullying, Self Defence and The Rule of Natural Justice – https://nfps.info/bullying-self-defence-and-the-rule-of-natural-justice/
You Can’t Be Sacked For Defending Yourself At Work [Video] – https://nfps.info/defending-yourself-at-work-video/
Defending a Child With ADHD And Autism Who Acted in Self Defence [Video] – https://nfps.info/defending-a-child-with-adhd-and-autism-who-acted-in-self-defence/