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 Martial Arts and The Law

In the martial art's world there are many arguments that take place. Many argue about the purpose of one's training. Even though thousands of martial artists are interested in character-building, physical fitness and the mental discipline that comes with the training, most individuals join martial arts studios to feel more confident about their ability to protect and defend themselves. 

This issue, the ability to defend yourself, brings up some very interesting questions:
Do you have the right to protect yourself in any way you feel is necessary? 
Are you protected against assault charges, criminal or civil lawsuits brought against you by someone you injured while defending yourself?  If you are threatened with bodily harm, are you justified in taking any action necessary to protect yourself, your significant other or your personal possessions?

Everybody who trains in the martial arts should be aware of court rulings and certain laws that might affect their actions.  There are not many simple, clear-cut rights as you may think. Depending on the state or country that you reside, using your martial arts skills may lead to an arrest, or a costly and complicated lawsuit. There are legal consequences in defending yourself.  Remember this; in a court of law, it is assumed that you are aware of the legal limits of your actions. There's a common legal saying, "Ignorance of the Law is No Defense." 

As a martial artist, if you ever have to defend yourself using physical force, and in doing so it lands you in police custody, you should immediately seek the aid of an attorney.  When a martial artist, especially a Black Belt is accused of excessive force in self-defense, the standard is usually higher than that of a novice practitioner, a non- martial artist, and a reasonable or prudent person. Many courts believe that it is only fair that one with unique skills is held to a unique standard.

Many martial artists go through years of extensive training, some make it into the black belt ranks, but few spend the time learning the assault laws that could ultimately affect them, or for that matter, the type of force that they are allowed by law to use on an attacker.

Through out North America, most states allow its law-abiding citizens only one type of force to be used in self-defense. That type of force is one, which is necessary to fend of an attack and prevent injury. Universally, there are three types of force used: reasonable, excessive and deadly.

      Reasonable force is that force which a reasonable person thinks is necessary under the circumstances, to stop the threat and prevent further injury.  Example:   An assailant confronts you and advances forward. He then directs a punch towards your head. You react by dodging his blow, causing him to miss the intended target. You then follow up with a kick to his abdomen. He immediately falls to the ground and ceases his threatening actions. At this point no further physical action is required of you, other than making an effort to notify the proper authorities and reporting the incident.

     Excessive force is using any force above and beyond the force required to stop the threat.  Example: An assailant attacks you, and you are able to block, and counter with a reasonable amount of force. The attacker falls to the ground and is temporarily immobilized. At this point, you kick or punch him several more times.


     Deadly force is any force used with the purpose of causing, or knowing it can cause a substantial risk of causing death or serious bodily harm. Example: Taking both the Reasonable and Excessive use of force into consideration, basically any technique used after reasonable force without justification, may be deemed deadly depending on the severity of the injury you caused.


      For starters, self-defense is not a right, but a privilege - a privilege that can be lost in a variety of ways. The privilege of self-defense and the use of force towards another person are justifiable only when a person reasonably believes that such force is immediately necessary for the purpose of protecting himself/herself against the use of unlawful force by such other person on the present location.  It is not a defense to use self-defense when committed in a fight or scuffle entered into by mutual consent.  A person in court claiming the privilege of self-defense must also establish that his or her belief in the necessity to use physical force was sound thinking, with common sense and not excessive.


One who provokes or initiates an assault cannot escape criminal liability by invoking self-defense as a defense to a prosecution arising from injury done to another. The right to self-defense is only available to the one who is free from fault.  A good point to remember is, while you are defending yourself and the assailant's threat stops, your use of force must also stop.  If you continue to use force after the assailant's immediate threat has stopped, then you may be criminally and or civilly held liable for any injury the assailant sustained after the threat was no longer present. 


As martial arts instructors, regardless of style, this basic standard of martial arts and the law applies to all. Therefore, we must reevaluate our own self-defense techniques that are taught in our training halls. Is it necessary to teach our students to go above and beyond the force that it is required by law?   From personal experience, I have witness at demonstrations, seminars, and at tournaments, individuals performing their self-defense techniques. And in almost all occasions, the defender took extra measures to continue to kick or punch, and even conduct bone breaks to the attacker even after the attacker was completely immobilized.  Is this what we want to teach our students, or portray to the public that martial artists are ruthless? A vast majority of the public already perceives martial artists, especially black belts as walking deadly weapons.   It is imperative to change that view.  It is up to us as instructors to change that perception. The public must be taught that we can restrain ourselves and only take the necessary actions to stop our assailants. Ultimately, a jury of your peers will judge you in a court of law. Wouldn't you want them on your side? 

Lets rethink for a moment and ask ourselves, how can we continue tradition and still comply with the 21st Century laws. Today's martial art instructors must take a responsible approach to teaching self-defense techniques, to include choosing the right words to describe the technique's purpose.  Don't forget that you as the instructor may also be held accountable for your student's actions, especially if what you're teaching is not within the limits of the law. Lets face it, we live in a litigate society and the laws commonly govern everything we do.


About the author:  Ivan Mendez, is a police detective in the state of New Jersey with 11 years of law enforcement experience. He also holds a 4th degree Black belt in American Karate with 21 years of martial arts experience.

Ivan Mendez

Trenton P.A.L. / Red Dragon Karate Studio
401 Farragut Ave.
Trenton, NJ 08609
(609) 540-3039 office
(609) 396-6071 fax
email:KarateTour@peoplepc.com

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Revised Last 1/09/08