Criminal accusations of any type are unnerving, extremely stressful and often demeaning. Accused individuals are often fearing the worst given the outcomes that can happen, even when the factors of a case mean that a strong defence case can be compiled with expert advice. It’s important to know the consequences of assault charges in case a person has to plead guilty or is found guilty. To do this it’s necessary to understand the potential factors that could reduce blame and ultimately help the individual to achieve a fair, just and positive outcome.
Assault is a term used to describe any offence committed against another person. It can be dealt with in either the Crown or Magistrates’ Courts depending on the title and severity of the offence in question. Common assault cases are heard by the Magistrates’ Court (where they are not considered to be racially-aggravated), whereas more severe ABH and many GBH cases are heard at the Crown Court.
Sentences for assault are highly variable, even within specific offence titles. An act of common assault could be punishable by a nominal fine, or up to a maximum punishment of 6 months in custody. Crown Court judges have the power to issue more severe consequences, upwards of that 6-month maximum.
Common assault sentences
Unless a common assault offence is jointly charged alongside a more serious case or charge, it must be dealt with in the Magistrates Court unless in itself it is deemed to be racially aggravated. As such it is tried as a summary-only offence, meaning it will be tried at the Magistrates’ Court. However, where it is alleged that the offence was racially or religiously aggravated, then it can be heard at either the Magistrates Court or the Crown Court.
Factors increasing culpability
When passing sentence, the Courts look at two main factors in determining the range of sentence and what the “starting point” is. These are the “harm” and “culpability” factors, and the Courts apply these in accordance with the Guidelines that they are given. When Courts are seeking to assess the culpability of an accused individual, they are considering the level of blame of the offender during the offence itself. A similar approach is adopted by the Court’s when they are considering the “harm” that is caused.Harm is reviewed in terms of the presence of physical injuries and/or psychological impact on the complainant. The following factors are examples of characteristics that will indicate a higher level of culpability:
- Serious injury (or fear of injury) was sustained by the victim
- Victim was vulnerable for personal reasons and/or deliberately targeted
- The act was sustained over an excessive period of time, or repeated on the same victim
- Assault was motivated by discrimination – for example disabilities, sexuality, age or ethnicity
- Use of threats or threatened use of a weapon
Once the offence is categorised by level of culpability and harm, then a more specific starting point for sentencing category can be determined:
Category 1 offences of common assault have a starting point of a high-level community order but can increase to a 26-month custodial sentence in the case of racially-aggravated assault.
Category 2 offences have a starting point of a medium level community order, but no more punishment than a high-level community order is to be expected.
Category 3 offences are usually sentenced by way of a fine but can be discharged completely without further consequences when a low level of culpability is found.
The ranges that are applied are subject to change and sentencing becomes tailored to the circumstances of the case and also those of the individual. If a person has previous convictions this in itself can move an offence from one category to another. Similarly, a timely guilty plea can on occasions have a decisive effect in terms of reducing an offence category’s seriousness. The key is to ensure that an expert in assault cases is advising a person from the outset, to ensure that the right points are made and the best outcome achieved.
Assault occasioning actual bodily harm (ABH) sentences
Assault occasioning actual bodily harm, as the offence is formally titled, can be tried at either the Magistrates’ or Crown Court. Like common assault charges, if the offence is found to be racially or religiously motivated, the Sentencing GuidelinesCouncil suggests that more severe punishments are appropriate.
Factors increasing culpability
For sentencing purposes, ABH charges are placed within one of three categories, the decision to place these is dictated by the amount of harm caused and the level of culpability, much like with that outlined above for Common Assault cases. Category 1 describes acts with the highest amount of harm and culpability. The following are examples of factors which illustrated a higher level of culpability:
- Existence and evidence of a serious injury that was sustained as a result of the assault, this could include the transmission of disease
- Evidence that the attack was sustained or repeated over an excessive period of time
- Evidence of premeditation, planning or targeting of a specific victim
- Evidence suggests that the intention of the accused individual was more than the injury inflicted
- Evidence that a weapon or the equivalent of a weapon, such as bottled or shod foot, was used
Category 1 ABH offences have a starting point of 18 months custodial prison sentence, but can increase to 3 years’ custody.
Category 2 offences have a starting point of 26 weeks’ custody but can increase up to 51 weeks’ custodial sentence.
Category 3 offences are punished by way of fine or community order, with the starting point being a medium level community order.
Within the above sentencing ranges, the sentence itself can vary greatly. The courts look closely at the specific factors of the case and the individuals involved and, on occasions, the conduct of the victim. One factor that is relevant to sentencing is whether the victim provoked the assault or whether the case was one whereby the offender was originally acting in self defence but went beyond that which would be considered reasonable in his or her response.
Reducing the length of potential sentences
If you are charged with an assault charge and are facing court proceedings, then you should appoint an expert criminal defence solicitor that will review the facts of your case which may help you achieve a positive outcome, picking out the right things to highlight and bring to the court’s attention
Knowledge and experience of how courts apply these characteristics to cases of assault and the application of certain mitigating factors, characterise the expertise needed to successfully underpin a legal defence case. Appointing an expert within this aspect of law will ensure you are best served to reduce any potential penalties that could occur in the worst case scenario.