Define: Actual Force

Actual Force
Actual Force
Quick Summary of Actual Force

Actual force refers to the use of power, violence, or pressure against a person or object. It can manifest as physical force, such as a violent act committed against a victim during a robbery, or as constructive force, which entails employing threats and intimidation to gain control or prevent resistance. For instance, a robber may employ physical force to forcefully take money from a victim, while a bully may resort to constructive force by threatening to harm someone unless they hand over their lunch money. These instances exemplify actual force, as they involve the use of power or violence to manipulate or cause harm to others. In the first example, the robber resorts to physical force to seize money from the victim, while in the second example, the bully employs constructive force by issuing threats to coerce compliance from the victim.

What is the dictionary definition of Actual Force?
Dictionary Definition of Actual Force


Actual force refers to the use of physical strength or power to harm or exert pressure on another individual or object. It commonly occurs during instances of robbery, where a person physically assaults or injures another. This concept should be distinguished from constructive force, which involves the use of threats or intimidation to gain control or prevent resistance. Deadly force, on the other hand, involves the use of violence that has the potential to cause severe harm or even death. Reasonable force, in contrast, entails using only the necessary amount of force to protect oneself or one’s belongings. Lastly, unlawful force occurs when an individual employs force against another without their consent, constituting a criminal or civil offence.

Full Definition Of Actual Force

Actual force, a fundamental concept in criminal law and tort law, pertains to the physical power or violence exerted by one individual upon another. In the context of British law, it is a critical element in various offences, ranging from common assault to more serious crimes such as battery, robbery, and certain sexual offences. Understanding actual force involves delving into statutory provisions, case law, and judicial interpretations to comprehend how it is applied and adjudicated.

Definition and Scope

Actual force is generally defined as the intentional application of unlawful physical power or violence against another person. This definition encompasses both direct physical contact and indirect actions that result in physical harm or offensive contact. The key aspects to consider include:

  • Intentionality: The force must be applied intentionally, distinguishing it from accidental or negligent actions.
  • Unlawfulness: The application of force must be unlawful, meaning it is without consent and not justified by law (such as self-defence or the defence of others).
  • Physical Power: The force can be minimal, such as a mere touch, or significant, causing substantial harm or injury.

Statutory Provisions

In British law, various statutes address the application of actual force. Some of the primary legislative sources include:

  • Offences Against the Person Act 1861: This Act encompasses a range of offences involving actual force, from common assault to grievous bodily harm.
  • Criminal Justice Act 1988: This Act includes provisions for common assault and battery.
  • Sexual Offences Act 2003: Certain sections of this Act address sexual assault involving actual force.

Common Assault and Battery

Under the Criminal Justice Act 1988, common assault and battery are distinct but closely related offences.

  • Common Assault: This involves intentionally or recklessly causing another person to apprehend immediate unlawful force. No physical contact is necessary.
  • Battery: This requires the actual infliction of unlawful force on another person, however slight.

Case Law and Judicial Interpretations

Case law plays a crucial role in interpreting the application of actual force. Several landmark cases provide insight into judicial reasoning and the boundaries of what constitutes actual force.

  • R v. Venna (1976): This case established that recklessness can suffice for the mens rea (mental element) of common assault, broadening the scope of actual force.
  • Collins v. Wilcock (1984): This case clarified that any unwanted physical contact, however minimal, can amount to battery.
  • R v. Ireland; R v. Burstow (1997): These cases expanded the understanding of assault to include psychological harm where no physical contact occurs but the victim fears immediate violence.

Self-Defence and Lawful Force

Not all applications of force are unlawful. British law recognises several defences that justify the use of force, primarily self-defence, defence of others, and defence of property. The principles governing these defences are encapsulated in both common law and statutory provisions, such as the Criminal Law Act 1967, which states:

“A person may use such force as is reasonable in the circumstances in the prevention of crime or in effecting or assisting in the lawful arrest of offenders or suspected offenders or of persons unlawfully at large.”

Reasonable Force

The concept of reasonable force is pivotal. The force used must be proportionate to the threat faced. Courts consider various factors in determining reasonableness, including the immediacy and severity of the threat and whether the force used was necessary to avert the threat.

Aggravating Factors and Sentencing

The severity of offences involving actual force can be influenced by aggravating factors such as the use of weapons, the vulnerability of the victim, and the intent to cause serious harm. Sentencing guidelines reflect these factors, with more severe penalties for offences where actual force results in significant injury or trauma.

Grievous Bodily Harm (GBH) and Wounding

The Offences Against the Person Act 1861 distinguishes between different levels of harm:

  • Section 20: Malicious wounding or inflicting grievous bodily harm, which does not require intent to cause serious harm but must involve the application of unlawful force.
  • Section 18: Wounding or causing grievous bodily harm with intent, which is a more serious offence and carries harsher penalties due to the specific intent to cause serious injury.

Consent and Actual Force

Consent is a critical element in determining the unlawfulness of the applied force. Generally, a person cannot consent to serious harm. However, there are exceptions in certain contexts, such as sports, medical procedures, and consensual sexual activities. The boundaries of consent are continuously evolving through case law.

  1. R v. Brown (1993): This case held that consent is not a defence to actual bodily harm or more serious injury inflicted during sadomasochistic activities.
  2. R v. Wilson (1996): Contrarily, this case accepted consent as a defence where a husband branded his initials on his wife’s buttocks with her consent, differentiating from Brown based on the context of the injury.

Actual Force in Sexual Offences

The Sexual Offences Act 2003 redefined and broadened the understanding of consent and force in sexual offences. Sexual assault involves the intentional application of actual force without consent, and the Act emphasises the importance of genuine, informed, and voluntary consent.

Actual Force in Robbery and Theft

Robbery, as defined under the Theft Act 1968, involves the application of actual force to steal. The act of force or the threat thereof must be used immediately before or at the time of the theft to qualify as robbery, distinguishing it from mere theft or burglary.

Civil Liability and Tort Law

In tort law, actual force is primarily relevant in the context of trespass to the person, which includes assault, battery, and false imprisonment. The principles of intentionality, unlawfulness, and physical contact are similar to those in criminal law, but the remedies sought are typically damages rather than criminal sanctions.


Actual force is a multifaceted concept in British law, encompassing a range of offences and defences. It is defined by the intentional and unlawful application of physical power, with nuances shaped by statutory provisions and case law. Defences such as self-defence and the concept of reasonable force play a crucial role in determining the lawfulness of the applied force. Understanding actual force requires a comprehensive analysis of legal principles, judicial interpretations, and the evolving boundaries of consent and proportionality in the application of physical power.

Actual Force FAQ'S

Actual force refers to the physical force or violence used by one person against another to cause harm or injury.

Actual force can be legally justified when it is used in self-defence or defence of others, to prevent a crime, or to protect one’s property.

In some jurisdictions, actual force can be used to protect personal property, but the level of force must be reasonable and proportionate to the threat faced.

Using excessive actual force can lead to criminal charges such as assault or battery, and the person using excessive force may be held liable for any injuries caused.

The use of actual force to discipline children varies by jurisdiction. In many places, it is allowed within reasonable limits, but excessive or abusive force can lead to child abuse charges.

No, actual force cannot be used to enforce a civil debt. Debt collection must be pursued through legal means, such as filing a lawsuit or obtaining a court judgment.

In most cases, actual force cannot be used to evict someone from a property. Evictions must follow specific legal procedures, and the use of actual force may result in criminal charges or civil liability.

Resisting arrest using actual force is generally illegal. It is advisable to comply with law enforcement officers and address any concerns or disputes through the appropriate legal channels.

Engaging in a bar fight or altercation using actual force can lead to criminal charges, such as assault or disorderly conduct. It is best to avoid such situations and seek peaceful resolutions.

In some jurisdictions, actual force can be used in a citizen’s arrest if certain conditions are met, such as witnessing a felony or having reasonable belief that a crime has been committed. However, the level of force used must still be reasonable and proportionate to the situation.

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This site contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation. Persuing this glossary does not create an attorney-client or legal adviser relationship. If you have specific questions, please consult a qualified attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

This glossary post was last updated: 7th June 2024.

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