Reasonable force refers to the amount and intensity of force that a person may lawfully use in self-defence or in the defence of another individual or property. It is also applicable to law enforcement officers during the execution of their duties.

In the context of law enforcement in New South Wales (NSW), the Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Act (LEPRA) stipulates the conditions under which police officers may exert force to carry out an arrest or prevent an escape after arrest. This provision encompasses the expectation that only such force as is reasonably necessary for that purpose is utilised.

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Definition of Reasonable Force

Reasonable force refers to the minimum amount of force necessary to prevent harm or crime, protect oneself or property, or conduct a lawful arrest or prevent an escape. Under Australian law, any force used must be proportionate to the threat encountered and applied only while the threat is imminent.

The assessment of what constitutes ‘reasonable’ is typically judged by the reasonable person standard, a legal criterion that relies on what an average person would consider appropriate under the circumstances. 

Excessive or disproportionate force beyond what a reasonable person deems necessary may constitute assault. In cases where force is applied, it is the assailant’s responsibility to justify the reasonableness of such force, and it is often scrutinised in a court of law.

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The Curtis Scott Case

In 2022, Raiders player Curtis Scott was charged with a series of offences, including assaulting and resisting a police officer in the execution of duty. However, these charges were eventually withdrawn as controversial details, including body-cam footage from the arresting officers, were released to the court.

The footage was particularly problematic, as it showed NSW Police officers attempting to wake Scott, who was asleep under a tree, before rapidly beginning to taser him, handcuff him and repeatedly say the phrase “Don’t resist…”.

The court case raised a number of questions around what constitutes reasonable force during an arrest, and actually resulted in all charges being dismissed, and Curtis Scott awarded more than $100,000 in legal costs.

Reasonable Force and the Application in Law Enforcement

The law that governs the power and responsibilities held by police and other law enforcement officers is outlined in the Law Enforcement (Power and Responsibilities) Act 2002 (LEPRA).

Under Section 231 of LEPRA, police officers, and others vested with the power to arrest, may utilise reasonably necessary force to effect an arrest or to prevent escape post-arrest. Any force used beyond this threshold may be deemed assault.

Use of Reasonable Force during an Arrest

Section 231 of LEPRA specifies in making an arrest, a police officer who exercises the power to arrest another person may use such force as is “reasonably necessary.” This requirement means the force employed should be proportionate to the situation at hand, intending to ensure compliance from the individual being arrested without inflicting unnecessary harm.

Self-Defence

Law enforcement officers are permitted to use reasonable force in self-defence or the defence of others. This includes situations where an officer is confronted with imminent harm.

The principle of self-defence requires that the force used must be no more than what is deemed sufficient to avert the threat, thus preventing the situation from escalating unnecessarily.

Crowd Control

In managing crowds, especially during protests or public gatherings, police are trained to employ strategies that are aimed at maintaining public order while respecting individuals’ rights to assembly. The use of force must be minimal, necessary, and proportionate to the threat level.

Specific guidelines and policies are typically in place, which include a gradual escalation of force only if required, to resolve situations with the least amount of conflict.

Key Takeaways

What to Do If the Force Applied is Not Reasonable

Understanding what constitutes reasonable force is critical, as the use of excessive force can lead to legal ramifications, including charges of assault. If you are facing criminal charges, or if you have reason to believe that police have not applied reasonable force to arrest or search you, talk to the professionals.

Hamilton Janke are highly experienced in criminal offences, and will do everything they can to ensure the best result possible for your case. Contact our team today. 

Written By
James Janke
James Janke

James Janke is founding partner at Hamilton Janke Lawyers, and has more then decade of experience as a Criminal Defence Lawyer. Admitted to both the Supreme Court of New South Wales and High Court of Australia