25 Jan

South Africans live under the threat of criminals invading their homes and businesses, and while we have the right to defend ourselves, it is not always clear under which circumstances one has the right to shoot.

So what exactly are the requirements for shooting an intruder in self-defense?

In order to determine the lawfulness of a defensive action, the courts apply the ‘reasonable man’ test – the question is whether a reasonable man in the same position would have done the same thing.

The following five factors are important: 

• The attack must be unlawful.

• The attack must be imminent or already underway.

• The attack must not be complete (it’s not selfdefense if the attack is over.)

• The defensive action must be directed only against the attacker.

• The defensive action must be proportionate to the circumstances (property value and the instrument used in the attack are key considerations).

If you follow the above guidelines and keep your actions within the principles of self-defence, you should be safe from legal repercussions.

For example: if you wake up in the middle of the night to find a stranger in your house and you shoot him immediately – and it turns out he did not have a weapon, you are going to find yourself in some trouble with the law.

If you shoot him and he did have a firearm, but he was never even aware of you, you will still be in hot water. You cannot shoot the unsuspecting thief on the premise that if you confront him he would harm you.

The preemptive strike principle is not applicable in private defence cases.

If the intruder has a knife (or screwdriver etc.) you will only be justified in shooting him if he attempts to stab someone. It could be argued that the fact that an armed intruder is inside your home is enough threat to justify the use of lethal force against him.

An important rule of thumb to keep in mind is that your property is not worth more than an intruder’s life.

Only shoot when your own or someone else’s life or physical safety is threatened.

So if the intruder is hot footing it across your lawn with your flat screen TV under one arm, it would not be considered justifiable to shoot him because your life is no longer in danger (it’s not self-defence if you shoot someone after the attack is over.)

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