privaye defenceThe common law provides that an owner may protect his property from harm or damage even though there might not be any physical risk of harm to the owner himself.

A person may use force in order to protect property and his or her rights therein. Private defence of property can only be resorted to if there is serious danger to the property or the owner’s rights therein. The danger must involve risk of loss, damage or destruction of the asset. The question is whether there were reasonable grounds for the defender to think that because of the offender’s unlawful conduct the danger existed.

There must be evidence that the property, movable or immovable, was in danger of unlawful damage and destruction at the moment action was taken. Unlike self-defence the danger need not necessarily have commenced or be imminent. Thus, private defence of property by means of protective devices is permitted in response to merely anticipated danger.

In order for a situation of private defence to arise, there must be evidence that:
• action was necessary to avert danger;
• the defence was a reasonable response;
• the defence was directed against the attacker;
• the attack was unlawful.

The measures taken to protect the defender’s proprietary interests must have been the only means whereby he could avoid danger. The rule regarding retreating has no application in the defence of property. One is not expected to abandon one’s property. Likewise, the inhabitants of dwellings are not expected to flee from homes, rather than resist the intrusion of a burglar.

The test is whether the means of defending the property were reasonable by having regard to all the circumstances, such as the nature and extent of the danger, the value of the property, and the time and place of the occurrence. The value of the property seems an important factor in determining the reasonableness of the defence.

In Ex parte Minister of Justice: In re S v Van Wyk the Court decided that killing in defence of property can be justified in circumstances where no other less dangerous or effective method is available to protect property.

In Ex Parte Minister of Safety and Security: In re S v Walters 2002 (CC), Judge Kriegler stated that while it was unnecessary to say whether our law allows for killing in defence of property, what is material is that the law applies a proportionality test, weighing the interest protected against the interest of the wrongdoer. These interests must now be weighed in the light of the Constitution. Judge Kriegler said that surely in Constitutional terms, the value of a life must be prized above the value of property.

The decision in Van Wyk is ripe for reconsideration by the Constitutional Court. Arguably the best route they could take is to draw a distinction between an excuse and a ground of justification. They could say that killing in defence of property is unlawful or wrongful, but in exceptional circumstances could be excusable if a reasonable person would have done the same thing.

It could therefore be argued that a deadly attack in defence of property would only be regarded as justifiable in extreme circumstances.

This article is a general information sheet and should not be used or relied on as legal or other professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your legal adviser for specific and detailed advice.

Private defence of property