justification (defense) | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Introduction

A justification (in criminal law) refers to a legal defense used to excuse or justify an otherwise criminal act.

In law, the idea of justification serves as a shield to protect a person from prosecution for an act that would usually be unlawful. Picture yourself in a scenario where you might need to break the law to prevent greater harm. You might think it’s unjust to be penalized for such an action. This is where a justification defense comes into play. It’s an argument that although you did commit the act, the circumstances forced you to, and it was in the best interest of society that you did so.

Types of Justification Defenses

One common type of justification defense is self-defense. If someone is attacking you, you have the right to defend yourself. However, the force you use must match the level of threat. If someone threatens to slap you, it wouldn’t be appropriate to shoot them, for instance.

Another justification is the defense of others. This strategy applies if you had to act to save someone else from imminent harm. Similar rules apply as in self-defense – your response should be proportionate to the danger.

The defense of property is also a justification defense. This strategy can be used if you committed an illegal act to protect your property. For instance, if a thief was about to steal your car, you might be justified in using force to stop them.

Lastly, the prevention of greater harm is a type of justification defense. This could be used if you had to commit a lesser crime to stop a more severe crime from happening. For instance, you might have to trespass to stop a fire from spreading.

Proving Justification

Remember, just saying that your actions were justified is not enough. You need to prove it. That means presenting evidence and convincing the court that you had no other choice but to act as you did. You must prove that you genuinely believed harm was imminent, you had no other way to escape, and the force you used was necessary.

Outcomes of Justification Defenses

Not all justification defenses are successful. The court will look at the specifics of your case and determine whether your actions were indeed justified. If you can successfully prove your justification, you may be cleared of the charges. Alternatively, your charges could be lessened to a minor offense.


Bear in mind the availability and effectiveness of justification defenses can vary. Different places have different laws and regulations regarding this defense. Some regions might be more accepting of certain justification defenses, while others might be stricter.


Justification defenses are essential components of criminal law. They acknowledge that life isn’t black and white, and sometimes, actions that seem illegal on the surface may be justified under specific circumstances. It’s a way for the law to adapt to the complexities of human actions and maintain justice.

[ Glossary ]

Last Modified: 03/09/2023

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