Assault covers a range of actions, from using threatening words to a severe physical attack that leaves the victim permanently disabled.

Offences of assault fall under the Offences against the Person Act 1861, the Criminal Justice Act 1988 and the Crime and Disorder Act 1998.

There are three basis types of assault offence:

  • common assault
  • actual bodily harm (ABH)
  • grievous bodily harm (GBH)/ wounding

Common assault is when a person inflicts violence on someone else or makes them think they are going to be attacked. It does not have to involve physical violence. Threatening words or a raised fist is enough for the crime to have been committed provided the victim thinks that they are about to be attacked. Spitting at someone is another example.

Actual bodily harm (ABH) means the assault has caused some hurt or injury to the victim. Physical injury does not need to be serious or permanent but must be more than “trifling” or “transient”, which means it must at least cause minor injuries or pain or discomfort. Psychological harm can also be covered by this offence, but this must be more than just fear or anxiety.

Grievous bodily harm (GBH) means the assault has caused serious physical harm. It does not have to be permanent or dangerous. For example, a broken bone would amount to GBH – in some cases a broken bone might lead to permanent disability but, in others, it might heal without leaving any long-term effects. GBH can also include psychiatric injury or someone passing on an infection, for example through sexual activity.

Wounding requires that the victim’s skin is broken, either on their body or their inner skin (for example, inside their lip) but it does not include the rupture of blood vessels so, if the injury is just bruising, that would not amount to wounding. The injuries involved in a wounding can be less serious than those in GBH.

The GBH or wounding must be caused either with an intent to cause some injury or with knowledge that injury was likely. If it was committed with intent to cause GBH or wounding then the offence is more serious. The maximum sentence for this is life imprisonment.

The offence is also more serious if the victim of the assault is an emergency worker. This covers police, prison officers, custody officers, fire service personnel, search and rescue services and paramedics.

Sentencing

Parliament sets the maximum (and sometimes minimum) penalty for any offence. When deciding the appropriate sentence, the court must follow any relevant sentencing guidelines, unless it is not in the interests of justice to do so.

Sentencing for assault depends on the offence type.

Common assault:

  • the maximum sentence is six months’ custody
  • if the assault is against an emergency worker, the maximum sentence is one year’s custody
  • if the assault is racially or religiously aggravated, the maximum sentence is two years’ custody

Actual bodily harm:

  • the maximum sentence is five years’ custody
  • if the assault is racially or religiously aggravated, the maximum sentence is seven years’ custody

Grievous bodily harm or wounding:

  • the maximum sentence is five years’ custody.
  • if the assault is racially or religiously aggravated, the maximum sentence is seven years’ custody
  • if the assault was committed with intent to cause GBH/wounding then the maximum sentence is life imprisonment

Find out more about the different types of sentence the courts can impose.

How is the sentence worked out?

Sentences are worked out by assessing harm and culpability.

Harm is an assessment of the damage caused to the victim by the assault. It considers how injured the victim was and whether the assault was sustained or repeated.

Culpability is a measure of how responsible the offender was in the assault. It considers whether the assault was premeditated or motivated by things like the victim’s race, disability, sexual/gender identity.

Factors increasing the severity of the sentence may include:

  • use of a weapon
  • targeting a vulnerable victim
  • the assault was committed under the influence of alcohol or drugs
  • the assault involved an abuse of power or took advantage of a position of trust

Factors decreasing the severity of the sentence may include:

  • the assault consisted only of a single blow
  • the assault was an isolated incident
  • the offender:
      • has shown remorse
    • is of good character
    • has a serious medical condition
    • lacks maturity, or has a mental disorder or learning disability
    • is the sole or primary carer for dependent relatives

If the defendant pleads guilty, they will receive a reduced sentence.

You can find out more about how sentences for assault are decided depending on the offence type. See the sentencing guidelines for:

Useful information

MYTH BUSTERS

Do sentences reflect the seriousness of crimes?
There is always a clear logic to how sentences are decided, but media reports of some cases can focus on a few key elements rather than all the facts of a case so it can be unclear why an offender got a particular sentence.

Judges and magistrates weigh up all the facts, how blameworthy the offender is and the level of harm they have caused, particularly to the victim, and use sentencing guidelines to reach a proportionate sentence. They look at aspects of the case that make the offence more serious, and any factors that reduce its seriousness. The judge must also consider other factors such as whether the offender pleaded guilty – which normally means a reduction in sentence – or whether they spent time in prison while awaiting trial and sentencing. This time is deducted from the overall sentence.

More sentencing myths and the facts

The information on this page is not a complete legal analysis of the offences and is not a substitute for legal advice. The law will be different in Scotland and Northern Ireland.