Assault is a very complex area of law with varying levels of seriousness. The Criminal Justice Act 1988 states that Common Assault, ABH and GBH are criminal offences determined by the level of foresight, motivation and injury inflicted, and each have different potential consequences and punishments for someone accused or convicted of the crime.

Whether intentional or reckless, the gravity of the injuries inflicted determine whether the case is prosecuted as Common Assault, ABH, or GBH. GBH is the most serious level of assault as the injuries are deemed to cause serious detriment to a victim’s health; physically through wounding, biologically through the transmission of disease, or psychologically if fear or paranoia are caused by the incident.

What is Grievous Bodily Harm (GBH)?

GBH is a criminal offence under Section 18 and 20 of the Offence Against the Person Act 1861 (OAPA). It 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, contrary to Section 18 of OAPA, the maximum sentence is life imprisonment. Injuries sustained by intentional GBH have the potential to be life changing for a victim, as such the penalties for individuals found ‘Guilty’ are highly severe. An assault at this level will often include the use of a weapon or the equivalent of a weapon, or striking the victim ferociously and/or for a prolonged period.

The use of a weapon can change the offence that may be charged and, consequently, make a conviction more serious. For example, if an accused person were to punch a victim once in the face, resulting in a broken jaw, it can be viewed that the 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 a Section 20 Assault—a less serious form of GBH.  

As the most serious form of assault, the consequences for individuals accused of GBH reflect this. The biggest factor in determining the sentence will be whether an offence is contrary to Section 18 (intentional) or Section 20 (reckless). However, other factors, like 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 case. If the circumstances highlight ‘mitigating’ factors, then this can indicate a lower level of culpability and result in a sentence as low as a community order.

Features of GBH:

  • Injuries caused are severely detrimental to a victim’s health
  • The law distinguishes between intentional GBH and reckless GBH, the former being more serious
  • Sentence ranges are broad. Ranging from community orders to life imprisonment, depending on the level of injuries and final charge

What is Actual Bodily Harm (ABH)?

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—for this reason, ABH is considered a less serious offence than GBH.

There are legal guidelines and tests that provide a basis for determining whether an injury should be deemed severe. This will usually be at the discretion of the prosecutors or an investigating police officer. Any injury that interferes with the health or comfort of a victim can be defined as ABH, such as bruises, 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.

ABH, much like GBH, 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 and can result in being charged with ABH if the victim was bruised because of the fall. In this example, the defendant may have either intentionally or recklessly caused the injury—as long as the injury wasn’t very serious it will be charged as an offence of 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’ or Crown Courts, this will depend on the circumstances and aggravating factors. The consequences are less severe than those given for GBH, ranging from community orders to up to 3 years’ imprisonment in the most severe cases (heard by the Crown Court). Prison sentences are more likely to be given the assault is not a first-time offence.

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—Common Assault, ABH or, most seriously, GBH.

Features of ABH:

  • Injuries are less severe than in GBH cases, but must still be of provable detriment to the victim’s health
  • 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 to do if you arrested for assault?

If you are arrested by police for an assault charge, then your first step should be to seek immediate legal representation – as police begin building a case against you from the moment you are arrested. Even if you’ve had the Duty Solicitor at the Police Station, you can instruct Lawtons team of criminal defence solicitors in London, experts in this complex area of criminal law. We are available to represent accused individuals 24-hours a day to protect your rights and help you achieve a positive outcome, contact us to discuss your options and how we can help you to prepare the best case from the outset.