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Law on self defence is clear, says Goff

Hon Phil Goff Minister of Justice

2 November 2004

Law on self defence is clear, says Goff

New Zealand's laws covering self defence are clear, longstanding and shared by most other common law jurisdiction countries, says Justice Minister Phil Goff.

"Section 48 of the Crimes Act 1961 sets out the defence: 'Everyone is justified in using, in defence of himself or another, such force as, in the circumstances as he believes them to be, it is reasonable to use'.

"Under section 55, the law also permits 'such force as is necessary' to prevent the forcible breaking and entering of a person's house.

"In regard to self defence, the statutory defence permits the use of reasonable force to defend one's self – and that force may include deadly force in certain serious circumstances.

"The force allowed by the law, however, must not be disproportionate or excessive to the threat faced.

"For example, if someone was attacking me with a knife or a gun, I would likely be justified in using deadly force to repel the attack. But if I saw a thief walking out of my house carrying a television set, I would not be justified in shooting him in the back.

"Where there is doubt about the reasonableness of the force used, police can lay charges and send the matter to the Courts.

"Overwhelmingly, juries in determining such cases have, in other than extreme cases, shown some sympathy for the position of the person protecting himself against criminal intruders.

"This law in one form or another has been in place for around a century, and has been well tested.

"What we don't want is an Americanisation of our laws that encourages people to arm themselves and take the law into their own hands by shooting first and asking questions afterwards. "This is inclined to put the lives of innocent people at risk as much as the lives of offenders, and to encourage criminals themselves to shoot first in anticipation of the other party being armed.

"It is for precisely this reason that New Zealand has chosen never generally to arm its police force.

"In a heavily-armed society like the United States, the homicide rate and the robbery rate are in fact four times higher per head of population than in New Zealand.

"Act MP Stephen Franks, in promoting change to the law, has got his facts wrong and has sought dishonestly to politicise the issue.

"The 1980 change he alleges was made by Labour to reduce the effectiveness of self defence was in fact made four years before Labour came to government.

"Further, the 1980 change, according to my legal advisers, did exactly the opposite to what Mr Franks states.

"The section repealed in effect related to the self-defence rights of a trespasser, having provoked an attack by the property owner. They were repealed because they were complex and confusing.

"Mr Franks' claim that the Attorney General has decision-making powers in this area is quite wrong, and has been explicitly rejected by the Police," Mr Goff said.

All Phil Goff’s media releases and speeches are posted at

Seventh United Nations Survey on Crime Trends (based on Police statistics for 2000) rate per 100,000 population

Country Homicide Rape Robbery

New Zealand 1.17 22.48 46.33

Australia 1.57 81.41 121.43

Canada 1.59 78.08 87.7

Eng&Wales 1.61 16.23 179.73

South Africa 51.39 123.85 460.37

USA (1999) 4.55 32.05 147.36


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