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Law & Crime

THE PRINCIPLES OF SELF DEFENCE IN THE NIGERIAN LEGAL SYSTEM

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A woman stabs the husband, to death in Ikorodu Lagos alleging it was self defence.

Now, the question that comes to mind would be: Self defence which may reduce the punishment for the offence of murder to manslaughter, will it avail her in a successful plea and other defences?

Definition of Self Defence

Self-defence according to Black’s Law Dictionary, 10th Edition is the use of force to protect oneself, one’s family or one’s property from real or threatened attack.

The principle states that a person is justified in using a reasonable amount of force in self-defence where he or she reasonably believes that the danger of bodily harm is imminent and that force is necessary to avoid this danger.

Section 286 of the Criminal Code Act states:

when a person is unlawfully assaulted, and has not provoked the assault, it is lawful for him to use such force to the assailant as is reasonably necessary to make effectual defence against the assault provided that the force used is not intended, and is not such as is likely, to cause death or grievous harm”.

If the nature of the assault is such as to cause reasonable apprehension of death or grievous harm, and the person using the force by way of defence believes, on reasonable grounds, that he cannot otherwise preserve the person defended from death or grievous harm, it is lawful for him to use any such force to the assailant as is necessary for defence, even though such force may cause death or grievous harm.

According to report, the sobbing suspect was interviewed, she said “I didn’t kill him intentionally. He was always Battering me. Today, he pinned me down and started beating me again. I picked the knife to scare him, but I mistakenly stabbed him”.

From the statement above, one would be left to wonder if the intended plea would be “accident” or “self defense” or “provocation” or if conflicting defense are intended.

In the supreme court case of Peter Iliya Azabada V. The State Legal Pedia Electronic Citation (LER 2014) Sc. 367/2011. Onuoghen JSC had this to say:

‘ In criminal trial, the trial court should consider all defences available to an accused person irrespective of its merits or stupidity. I hold the view that the principles does not mean that the court can uphold conflicting defences.
Where the defences raised by an accused person conflicts with one another, the trial court, in my view, though obliged to consider all the defence applicable to the case having regard to the evidence on record. Where the facts disclosed in evidence support one as against the other as in this case the court will adopt the established defence.

On the other hand, one may be inclined to think of what provocation is. This is what Rhodes  – Vivour, JSC had to say on provocation; “Any act or words may be provocative” he went further to define provocation as an act or series of acts done by the deceased (when alive) to the accused person which would cause a reasonable person, a sudden a temporary loss of self control rendering the accused person to subject to passion as to make him for the moment not master of his mind.

What then happens in a successful defence of provocation in a charge of murder?


Rhodes-Vivour, JSC went on to say: “in a charge for murder, a successful defence  of provocation has the effect of reducing the charge to Manslaughter. Once the accused person is convicted for manslaughter, the trial judge has discretion on sentence”. Sentence can be a custodial sentence ranging from one day to day life imprisonment. Whereas, for a conviction for murder, there is no discretion. The sentence is death”.

On accident

Accident means that the action leading to the injury was unintentional. Accident as a legal defence applies as long as the defendant has no criminal intent, no evil design and did not engage in any culpable negligence. But it only applies where a defendant is engaged in a lawful conduct.

To assert accident as a legal defence, the burden is on the defendant to prove that he/she acted with no criminal intent or culpable negligence.

The defence of accident is available in any case that requires intentional criminal conduct as an element.

This means that in an offence whereby an accused picks up a knife to “scare” someone and eventually stabs the victim, the accused cannot (in my opinion) rely on accident.

Now let us look at the provision of the Law Section 24 of the Criminal Code states that “a person is not criminally responsible for an act or omission which occurs independently of the exercise of his will or an event which occurs by accident”. 
The question now is “at what point will an event or an act committed be deemed accidental?

In Maiyaki V. State, the Supreme Court held as follows “An event is said to be accidental where the act by which it is caused is not done with the intention of causing it and when its occurrence is as a consequence of such act, it is not so probable that a person of ordinary prudence ought in the circumstance in which it is done, to take reasonable precautions against it.

In conclusion, when one successfully pleads accident, it only makes the act not to fall within the provisions of Section 316 of the Criminal Code. 

OKOYE BRIAN C. Esq.

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