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Law of Private Defence: Ambit, Limitations and Landmark Cases

Law of Private Defence: Ambit, Limitations and Landmark Cases

“Self help is the first rule of Criminal law”

In the realm of law, this fundamental principle speaks about the idea of helping yourself before seeking help from others, especially in situations where life or property is at risk. 

While it's the government's responsibility to safeguard the lives and possessions of its citizens, it's practically impossible for authorities to monitor every activity around the clock. There are moments when immediate assistance from the state might not be possible during emergencies. This is where the right of private defence comes into play.

Jeremy Bentham, a notable philosopher, highlighted the importance of private defence, stating, “This privilege of defence is completely essential. The cautiousness of the Magistrates can never compensate for the watchfulness of every person on his own behalf. The dread of the law can never limit awful men so efficiently as the dread of the aggregate to individual resistance. Remove this privilege and you become, in this manner, the associate of every single awful man.”

The Right of private defence operates on two key principles:

  • Self-Defence: Everyone has the right to defend themselves and their property, as well as others' lives and possessions, from harm or threat. It is accessible against the aggressor just;

  • Exclusion of Aggressors: However, this right doesn't apply if the person claiming self-defence is the one who initiated the aggressive actions.

In simpler terms, private defence is like having a safety net for moments when immediate help isn't available. It empowers individuals to take necessary action to protect themselves and their property, ensuring their safety and security.


The concept of private defence embodies a fundamental principle of self-protection within legal boundaries. It delineates the circumstances under which individuals can protect themselves or others from harm or unlawful acts, particularly when immediate recourse to public authorities is impractical.

Essentially, the right to private defence hinges on the premise that individuals have the inherent right to safeguard their lives, bodies, and properties from unlawful aggression. This right, however, is not absolute and comes with clear limitations and conditions.

The right to private defence is triggered when there is a reasonable apprehension of imminent bodily harm or the commission of specified serious offences. It is crucial to note that this right is defensive in nature, aimed at protecting oneself or others rather than seeking retribution or inflicting disproportionate harm.

The right of private defence does not extend to causing harm beyond what is necessary for defence. It emphasizes the importance of proportionality in using force to repel an attack or prevent a crime. Additionally, the right to private defence ceases to apply when there is an opportunity to seek help from public authorities or when there is an opportunity to seek help from public authorities or when the threat no longer persists.


Sections 96 to 106 of the Indian Penal Code 1860 constitute the legal framework governing the right of private defence concerning both individuals and their property. These provisions empower individuals to employ necessary force against assailants or wrongdoers in defence of their own person or possessions, as well as to protect others' bodies and properties when immediate assistance from law enforcement is unavailable.

Under these sections, individuals are shielded from legal liability for their actions taken in the exercise of private defence:

  1. Section 96: Defines the general right to private defence, stating that everyone has the right to defend themselves or others against any act that causes a reasonable fear of death or serious bodily harm.

  2. Section 97: It says that the right includes the use of action that is proportionate to the harm feared to repel the assault.

  3. Section 98: Addresses the right to private defence against the actions of a person who is insane, intoxicated, or in any other comparable state.

  4. Section 99: Defines actions that are not subject to private defence.

  5. Section 100: Addresses circumstances in which the right to private bodily defence goes to inflicting death. 

  6. Section 101: This section addresses circumstances in which the right to private bodily defence stretches to inflicting harm other than death. It says that such action may be used when there is a reasonable fear of grave harm and the individual exercising the right of private defence has no other way of escaping.

  7. Section 102: Provides for the establishment and maintenance of the right to private property defence. 

  8. Section 103: Lays down circumstances in which the right to private property defence stretches to inflicting death. 

  9. Section 104: Addresses circumstances in which the right to private property defence stretches to inflicting harm other than death. 

  10. Section 105: This section addresses the establishment and maintenance of the right to private defence of one’s person and property. 

  11. Section 106: Deals with the right of private defence against a deadly assault when there is a risk of harm to an innocent person. 


  • Proportional Force: Any force used in self-defence must be appropriate and proportional to the level of threat faced. Using excessive force beyond what is necessary is not considered justifiable under the law.

  • Time-Bound: The right to private defence is applicable only during the continuation of the danger. Once the danger subsides or the threat is no longer imminent, the right to defend oneself or property ceases to exist.

  • Reasonable Belief: Individuals invoking the right of private defence must have a genuine and reasonable belief that using force is essential to prevent harm. Mere suspicion or unfounded assumptions do not validate the use of force in self-defence.

  • Use of Deadly Force: The use of lethal or deadly force is justified only when there is an immediate threat of death or serious bodily harm. Using lethal force in situations where non-lethal means could suffice is not permissible under the law.

  • Avoiding Unnecessary Harm: Defenders must take measures to minimize harm and injury, ensuring that their actions are not excessively harmful or cruel beyond what is necessary to repel the attack or threat.

  • No Pre-emptive Strikes: The right to private defence cannot be preemptively invoked to justify offensive actions, revenge, or retaliation. It is specifically limited to defending against ongoing threats or attacks and does not extend to proactive or retaliatory measures.


  1. Darshan Singh vs. State of Punjab (2010): The Supreme Court established guidelines concerning citizens' right to self-defence, emphasizing that individuals facing an imminent threat to life are not expected to act in a cowardly manner and have the right to use lethal force against the aggressor if necessary. However, the court also cautioned against using self-defence as a pretext for endangering others' lives or seeking personal vengeance. It outlined ten specific situations where the right to self-defence applies: 

  • Self-preservation is a basic human instinct and is duly recognized by the criminal jurisprudence of all civilized countries. All free, democratic and civilized countries recognize the right of private defence within certain reasonable limits.

  • The right of private defence is available only to one who is suddenly confronted with the necessity of averting an impending danger and not of self-creation.

  • A mere reasonable apprehension is enough to put the right of self-defence into operation. In other words, it is not necessary that there should be an actual commission of the offence in order to give rise to the right of private defence. It is enough if the accused apprehended that such an offence is contemplated and it is likely to be committed if the right of private defence is not exercised.

  • The right of private defence commences as soon as a reasonable apprehension arises and it is co-terminus with the duration of such apprehension.

  • It is unrealistic to expect a person under assault to modulate his defence step by step with any arithmetical exactitude.

  • In private defence the force used by the accused ought not to be wholly disproportionate or much greater than necessary for protection of the person or property.

  • It is well settled that even if the accused does not plead self-defence, it is open to consider such a plea if the same arises from the material on record.

  • The accused need not prove the existence of the right of private defence beyond reasonable doubt.

  • The Indian Penal Code confers the right of private defence only when the unlawful or wrongful act is an offence.

  • A person who is in imminent and reasonable danger of losing his life or limb may, in exercise of self defence, inflict any harm (even extending to death) on his assailant either when the assault is attempted or directly threatened.

  1. Jassa Singh vs. State of Haryana (2002): The Supreme Court clarified that the right of private defence concerning property does not include the right to cause the death of a person who commits acts of trespass on open land. According to the court, only house trespass committed under circumstances that could reasonably lead to death or grievous harm is specifically listed as an offense under Section 103 regarding the right of private defence.

  2. Nand Kishore Lal v. Emperor (1924): Accused Sikhs abducted a Muslim woman and converted her to Sikhism, a situation arose where the woman's relatives demanded her return almost a year later. Despite the woman's express unwillingness to rejoin her Muslim husband, her relatives attempted to take her by force. In response, the accused resisted and one of them caused the death of the woman's assailants while defending her. The court held that the accused had the right to defend the woman against her assailants, and this right extended to causing death under relevant legal provisions. The actions of the accused in causing the death of the assailants were deemed lawful, and they were not held to have committed any offence in this context.

  3. Mohinder Pal Jolly v. State of Punjab (1979): In a scenario where workers of a factory were throwing brickbats from outside the gates, prompting the factory owner to use his revolver and cause the death of a worker, the court ruled that the relevant legal provision did not protect the factory owner in this instance. Therefore, the factory owner was not shielded by the law in this situation.

  4. Puran Singh and Ors vs. The State of Punjab (1975): The court observed that in the following circumstances right of private defence can be exercised :-

  • There is no sufficient time for recourse to the public authorities ii. There must be a reasonable apprehension of death or grievous hurt to the person or danger to the property concerned.

  • More harm than necessary should not have been caused.


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