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What is the Self-Defense Law in IL?

Blonde woman holding pepper spray for self defense close up

Most people understand that they are entitled to use self-defense to protect themselves and their loved ones if they are attacked. If you hurt someone while defending yourself, you are safe from prosecution for assault and other charges. But what actually counts as self-defense from a legal perspective? When are you protected from prosecution, and when are you still liable? Continue reading to learn about the self-defense legal defense in Illinois, and talk to an experienced Chicago criminal defense attorney as soon as you can if you have been charged with assault or other violent crimes in Illinois.

What is Self-Defense?

Self-defense is a legal doctrine that provides an affirmative legal defense for individuals accused of a violent crime. Self-defense renders force lawful that would otherwise be considered unlawful, so long as it was employed by the defendant to protect themselves, protect someone else, or, depending on the circumstances, to protect their property.

To claim self-defense in Illinois, the defendant must prove that using force was necessary to avert an immediate threat of harm. It is an “affirmative defense” because the defendant will admit to the conduct (e.g., hitting someone), but argue that they had legal justification to do so. The burden is on the defendant to prove self-defense, not on the prosecution to disprove self-defense.

Self-Defense of a Person in Illinois

Illinois law explicitly includes the right for someone to employ force to defend themselves or another person from harm. 720 ILCS 5/7-1 states that “a person is justified in the use of force against another when and to the extent that he reasonably believes that such conduct is necessary to defend himself or another against such other’s imminent use of unlawful force.” There are a few elements to the defense that are all necessary for self-defense to be legally effective.

Defining “Imminent” Danger

The defendant must have acted to prevent “imminent” harm to either the defendant or another person. That means the danger must be manifesting right now (i.e., someone must be attacking at the moment, or about to). Fearing that an attack may be coming in the future, such as if the defendant has been threatened in the past, is not sufficient for a self-defense claim.

Defining “Unlawful Force”

Self-defense may only be employed to defend against unlawful force. Unlawful force can be any type of contact or touching that is prohibited by the law, even if it is not “violent.” Unlawful force may include any of the following:

  • Rape
  • Sexual assault
  • Robbery
  • Battery (hitting, punching, kicking, choking, etc.)
  • Assault
  • Murder
  • Domestic violence

The use of force must be employed because it is necessary to protect against any sort of unlawful force. Whether the use of force was truly necessary will be up to the jury to decide.

Limited to “Proportionate Force”

Self-defense does not give people free rein to unleash any level of violence against a would-be attacker. The act of force employed by the defendant must be proportionate to the threat faced. For example, if you are threatened with a punch, you do not have the right to pull out a gun and shoot someone. Raising the stakes to deadly force is not appropriate unless necessary to prevent proportionate harm (rape, serious injury, murder, etc.)


If you or someone you care about is facing criminal charges in Illinois, protect your future and your family by seeking representation from seasoned and effective Chicagoland criminal defense lawyers. Contact the Carol Stream offices of Johnson, Westra, Broecker, Whittaker & Newitt at 630-665-9600.


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