ABH vs GBH: What is the difference?

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Nick Titchener

Managing Partner

In Brief

Of ABH (actual bodily harm) and GBH (grievous bodily harm), GBH is more serious as it is anything of severe detriment to the victim’s health. Level of injury varies significantly and is the determining factor in how an offence is categorised. However, either ABH or GBH can be committed recklessly or intentionally, with the deemed level of intention contributing to the sentence ultimately handed out. There does not need to be a provable intention to cause the injury sustained, only to apply unlawful force.

What is ABH? ABH vs GBH

What are the maximum and average sentences for ABH or GBH?

  1. A maximum penalty of 5 years in prison if found guilty of ABH
  2. A maximum sentence of life imprisonment if found guilty of GBH with intent
  3. A maximum sentence of 5 years imprisonment if found guilty of GBH without intent

If you are found guilty of ABH or GBH, the consequences are severe, particularly with GBH with intent where the maximum sentence could be a life term. Grievous bodily harm (GBH) is when someone intentionally or recklessly inflicts serious bodily harm on someone else. Nick Titchener, director and solicitor advocate at London Criminal Defence Solicitors, Lawtons, discusses this complex area of the law and its implications.

Assault is a very complex area of the law with varying levels of seriousness. The Criminal Justice Act 1988 states that common assault, ABH and GBH are criminal offences determined various things such as level of foresight, motivation and injury inflicted. Each offence has different potential consequences and punishments for someone accused or convicted of the crime.

graphic showing difference between abh and gbh

ABH or GBH: which is the more serious offence?

GBH is the most serious level of assault as the injuries are deemed to cause serious detriment to a victim’s health.

This may be:

  • Physically through wounding
  • Biologically through the transmission of disease
  • Psychologically if significant psychological/ mental trauma such as post traumatic stress disorder is caused

Whether intentional or reckless, the gravity of the injuries inflicted during the assault determines whether the CPS proceeds to prosecute the case as common assault, ABH or GBH.

What is ABH (Actual Bodily Harm) in the UK according to the Offences Against the Person Act 1861?

ABH is a criminal offence contrary to Section 47 of Offences Against the Person Act. Assaults that occasion actual bodily harm cause injuries that aren’t seriously harmful and for this reason, ABH is considered a less serious offence than GBH (grievous bodily harm).

There are legal guidelines and tests that provide a basis for determining whether an injury should be deemed severe. This will initally be at the discretion of the prosecutors or an investigating police officer and then the court if the case proceeds that far.

Any injury that interferes with the physical health or comfort of a victim can be defined as ABH,  normally where there is a break to the skin such as scratches or bite marks. ‘Actual’ harm refers to the notable consequences caused by an assault, meaning physical and psychological injuries need only be of minimal detriment to health, but this must be proven.

How are ABH & GBH similar?

Much like GBH, ABH can be committed either intentionally or recklessly. Intention needn’t be to injure the individual, only to apply unlawful force. For example, an individual who pushes a victim who falls and hits their head on the pavement may not have intended to injure the victim but they did intend to apply unlawful force.

As such, they can be charged with ABH if the victim was bruised as a result of the fall. In this example, the defendant may have either intentionally or recklessly caused the injury. Providing the injury wasn’t very serious, the offence will be charged as ABH rather than GBH.

If the push had caused the victim to fall to the floor and fracture their skull, this would be viewed more seriously as an offence of GBH, perhaps contrary to Section 20 as it was not intended for the push to result in a serious injury.

ABH cases can be heard at either Magistrates’ Court or Crown Court. The location will depend on the circumstances and aggravating factors. The consequences for ABH are less severe than those given for GBH and range from community orders to a maximum penalty of 5 years’ imprisonment in the most severe cases, which are heard by the Crown Court. Prison sentences are more likely to be given if the assault is not a first-time offence. If the offence of ABH is racially aggravated as governed by Section 29 of The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 the maximum sentence increases to 7 years. In straightforward cases of ABH, sentencing for a first offence, meanwhile, tends to involve a fine alongside a community order or suspended sentence order.

All assault cases are different and vary depending on the parties involved, the location and possible motivations. It’s up to the police and prosecutors to interpret the details of these cases and initially assess the severity of the case and determine what type of assault has been committed reflecting the level of injury caused, whether this is common assault, ABH or, most seriously, GBH.

ABH meaning

ABH can be classified by:

  • Injuries that are less severe than in GBH cases, but must still be of provable detriment to the victim’s health
  • The offence can be committed recklessly or intentionally, much like GBH. The intention need only be to apply unlawful force
  • Sentences can range from community orders to up to 3 years’ imprisonment

What is Grievous Bodily Harm (GBH) in the UK according to the Offences Against the Person Act 1861?

GBH is classified a criminal offence under Section 18 and 20 of the Offence Against the Person Act 1861 (OAPA). Grievous bodily harm is the most serious form of non-fatal assault and can be committed in two ways affecting the level of severity of offence – the difference being whether the crime was committed intentionally or recklessly.

If inflicted intentionally and contrary to Section 18 of OAPA, the maximum penalty for GBH is life imprisonment. Injuries sustained by intentional GBH have the potential to be life changing for a victim and as such the penalties for individuals found guilty of this offence are severe.

An assault at this level will often include the use of a weapon or the equivalent of a weapon, or may involve striking the victim ferociously and/or for a prolonged period.

GBH & the impact of a weapon being used

The use of a weapon can change the offence that may be charged and consequently make a conviction for GBH more serious. For example, if an accused person were to punch a victim once in the face resulting in a broken jaw, it may be assumed that serious injury was not intended.

However if a knuckle duster was used, the punch and consequent broken jaw will more likely be considered intentional. Seriously harming a victim recklessly but without intent is classified as a Section 20 Assault – a less serious form of GBH.  

As the most serious form of assault, the sentences for individuals accused of GBH reflect this. The primary factor in determining the punishment for GBH will be whether an offence is contrary to Section 18 (intentional) or Section 20 (reckless). However, other factors – such as the level of harm caused – will also be considered in determining an appropriate sentence length.

A conviction under Section 20 could sanction a maximum custodial sentence of 5 years, whilst under Section 18 the maximum could be a life sentence. Usually sentences range between 3 to 16 years, but this depends wholly on the facts of the individual case and the Court will have regard to a set of complex sentencing guidelines and past cases.

If the circumstances highlight any mitigating factors, this can indicate a lower level of culpability and result in a sentence as low as a community order.

GBH meaning

A GBH conviction will be classified by a number of factors, including:

  • Any injuries caused by the assault will be regarded as severely detrimental to a victim’s health
  • The law distinguishes between intentional GBH and reckless GBH, with the former being a more serious offence
  • Sentence ranges for GBH are broad. Ranging from community orders to life imprisonment, the sentence will depend on the level of injuries and the final charge

What should you do if you’re arrested for assault in the UK?

If you are arrested by the police for an assault charge, then your first step should be to seek immediate legal representation as the police begin to build a case against you from the moment you are arrested.

Even if you’ve already been represented by the duty solicitor at the police station, you can instruct Lawtons’ team of criminal defence solicitors, who are experts in this complex area of criminal law. We are available to represent accused individuals 24-hours a day to protect the individual’s rights and help them achieve a positive outcome.

ABH GBH differant degrees

Contact us to discuss your options and how we can help you to prepare the best case for your defence from the outset.

About the author

Nick Titchener, director and solicitor advocate of Lawtons, is a dedicated criminal solicitor with considerable experience in legal cases including sexual offences, violence and assault. Nick’s measured and methodical approach means he thrives on even the most complex case.

Nick also oversees the overall management of Lawtons Solicitors, a specialist firm of criminal law defence solicitors with branches across London, Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and Essex.

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