Assault offences explained
There are three basic types of assault offence set out in law – common assault, actual bodily harm (ABH) and wounding / grievous bodily harm (GBH). They are primarily defined by the harm caused to the victim – with common assault at the lower end of harm and GBH at the upper end.
They cover everything from threatening words to a severe physical attack that leaves the victim permanently disabled.
This post will outline a short summary of these three types of assault.
Common assault (section 39, Criminal Justice Act 1988)
A person is guilty of common assault if they either inflict violence on another person – however slight this might be – or make that person think they are about to be attacked.
They do not have to be physically violent – for example, threatening words or a raised fist could lead the victim to believe they are going to be attacked – and that is enough for the crime to have been committed. Other acts like spitting at someone may also classed as common assault.
The offence covers both intentional and reckless acts. For example, the offender may not have intended to cause the victim to think an attack was imminent but if they behaved in way that was likely to make the victim think they were about to be attacked, and they didn’t care what effect that behaviour would have, the offender is guilty of the offence.
If violence is used in a common assault, it is called a “battery” and the perpetrator would be charged with “assault by beating”. This does not however, mean that the victim was actually ‘beaten up’ or even hit or kicked – it could be that they were pushed, grabbed or spat at. The victim may not therefore have suffered any physical injury, and if any injury was caused, it would need to be quite minor to fall under common assault.
There are some situations in which actions that might fall under the definition of ‘assault’ are lawful, for example in medical interventions, in self-defence, or where it is part of a contact sport like rugby.
The maximum sentence allowed by law for common assault is six months imprisonment, and cases can only be heard in the magistrates’ court. If the assault is racially or religiously aggravated, the maximum sentence is two years imprisonment and cases can be heard in the Crown Court as well.
There are two other offences related to common assault – assault with intent to resist arrest and assault on a police constable in execution of his duty.
Assault with intent to resist arrest (section 38 Offences against the Person Act 1861)
This offence happens when someone commits a common assault at the time of a lawful arrest or detention with the aim of resisting or stopping the arrest, whether it is them or someone else being arrested. The victim need not be a police officer and could be a private citizen assisting an officer, or a private citizen or store detective making a citizen’s arrest. The maximum sentence is two years and cases can be heard in either the Crown Court or in the magistrates’ courts.
Assault on a police constable in execution of his duty (section 89 Police Act 1996)
This offence is a common assault on police or prison officers acting in the execution of their duty, or on a person helping them. Off-duty police officers may act in the course of duty if an incident occurs which justifies their immediate action as long as they acted lawfully.
Police and community support officers (PCSOs) are not included within this offence unless they are assisting a police officer at the time of the offence.
The maximum sentence is six months imprisonment and cases can only be heard in the magistrates’ courts.
This offence is not designed to cover all assaults on police officers. If an assault leads to more significant injury than is covered by common assault then the attacker would potentially be guilty of a more serious offence – either ABH or GBH.
Assault occasioning actual bodily harm (section 47, Offences against the person act 1861)
For this offence, the assault (which can be intentional or reckless as above) must have caused some physical harm to the victim. It does not need to be serious or permanent but must be more than trifling or transient. Some psychiatric harm can also be covered by this offence, but must be more than just fear or anxiety.
Although injuries that are more than ‘transient or trifling’ can be classified as ABH, in practice someone who causes no injury or injuries which are not serious is likely to be charged with common assault.
The maximum sentence for ABH is five years imprisonment and cases can be heard in the magistrates’ courts or Crown Court.
Grievous bodily harm / wounding
This covers two offences
- Unlawful wounding or inflicting grievous bodily harm (section 20, Offences against the person act 1861)
- Causing grievous bodily harm with intent to do grievous bodily harm/Wounding with intent to do grievous bodily harm (section 18, Offences against the person act 1861)
Unlawful wounding or inflicting grievous bodily harm (section 20)
Grievous bodily harm means really serious physical harm although it does not have to be permanent or dangerous. It can also comprise psychiatric injury or someone passing on an infection, such as through sexual activity.
Wounding requires the breaking of the skin, or the breaking of the inner skin (eg within the lip) but does not include the rupturing of blood vessels. Although a minor wound would therefore technically come under this offence, in practice the CPS is unlikely to charge it under s.20 However, the injuries involved in a wounding are of a lesser nature than those in GBH, so there can be quite some difference in the level of sentence for these two categories of injury.
The injury must be inflicted directly or indirectly by some deliberate or reckless conduct by the offender that was not an accident.
A section 20 offence requires either an intent to do some kind of bodily harm to another person or recklessness as to whether any such harm might be caused. So even if minor harm was intended but serious injury resulted, someone could be charged with this offence.
The maximum sentence for this offence is five years and cases can be heard in the magistrates’ or Crown Court.
Causing grievous bodily harm with intent to do grievous bodily harm/Wounding with intent to do grievous bodily harm (section 18)
This is the most serious of the assault offences and involves situations in which someone intended to cause very serious harm to the victim.
An offence may take one of four different forms, namely:
- wounding with intent to do grievous bodily harm;
- causing grievous bodily harm with intent to do so;
- maliciously wounding with intent to resist or prevent the lawful apprehension etc. of any person; or
- maliciously causing grievous bodily harm with intent to resist or prevent lawful apprehension etc. of any person.
The difference between this offence and a section 20 offence as above is that in a section 18 offence, the offender must have intended to cause serious bodily harm to the victim. It would not involve a situation where someone was very badly hurt unintentionally as a result of a minor scuffle or where during an arrest someone merely intended to resist arrest and in doing so unforeseeably injured the officer arresting him.
The maximum sentence for a section 18 offence is life imprisonment and cases can only be heard in the Crown Court.