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Decoding Judgements: Musing over Mistaken Assault in R v Williams (Gladstone)

22 September 2023 | CaseSnappy Team

A photo of a blue question mark on a pink background.


Welcome back to the Decoding Judgements series by CaseSnappy, where we unpack landmark UK legal cases. Today, we're shifting our focus to criminal law – specifically, the question of self-defence and reasonable force. We'll be delving into R v Williams (Gladstone) [1984], a prominent case that clarified the role of mistaken beliefs in cases of self-defence or assault.

The Mistaken Samaritan: Facts of the Case

Our defendant in this case is Williams, who, noticing a struggle between a man and a woman, thought the man was the aggressor. In an attempt to protect the woman, he intervened, using force against the man. Later, it emerged that the man was actually trying to reclaim his property from the woman, who was the original thief. Consequently, Williams was charged with assault.

Mistake or Assault: The Issues

A key question arose during the trial – could Williams's mistaken belief serve as a lawful excuse for his assault on the man? The defence claimed that his genuine belief necessitated the use of force and that such force was reasonable under the circumstances, thereby justifying his actions. The prosecution, however, contended that his mistake did not excuse his harsh response.

The Misunderstood Mistake: The Decision

In a decision that shaped the understanding of self-defence and reasonable force in English law, the court sided with Williams. It held that a genuine, albeit mistaken, belief that led to the use of force in self-defence or defence of another could indeed be lawfully excused. The court also emphasised that one must judge a defendant's mistake on its particular facts and not by an objective standard of reasonableness.

Lord Lane CJ's words capture the crux of the judgement: "If the defendant's alleged belief was mistaken and if the mistake was an unreasonable one, that may be a powerful reason for coming to the conclusion that the belief was not honestly held and should be rejected."

CaseSnappy: Clearing Legal Fog

R v Williams (Gladstone) sparks a fascinating discussion about self-defence, reasonable force, and the role of mistaken belief in criminal law. At CaseSnappy, we aim to demystify convoluted legal judgements, making them digestible for law learners, professionals, and enthusiasts alike.

Stay tuned for our next edition in the "Decoding Judgements" series. Sign up to CaseSnappy for free to keep on top of your legal knowledge.

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