What to do if you’ve been charged with ABH

Reviewed by Nick Titchener on 23rd August 2023

Nick Titchener headshot

Nick Titchener

Managing Partner

In Brief

While not as serious as grievous bodily harm (GBH), the crime of actual bodily harm (ABH) can still shape your future, whether you’re imprisoned for the offence or pick up a criminal record. If you’re charged with ABH, the first thing you should do is consult a solicitor.

ABH charges – why you need immediate legal advice

ABH covers a wide spectrum of injuries, with defendants sometimes believing they caused relatively little harm to the victim. Even if that’s the case, the repercussions can affect your life in many ways, including your employment prospects or your ability to secure a mortgage, for example.

For the best legal outcome possible, you should get in touch with a specialist ABH solicitor as soon as you can. They can help to reduce the impact of the charges on your life, working to maintain your freedom by preventing you from incriminating yourself and offering a convincing defence.

What is actual bodily harm (ABH)?

ABH is a classification of assault or battery, the results of which cause a certain degree of harm to someone. Injuries must go beyond trivial or transient ones and might include:

  • Minor fractures
  • Bruises
  • Scratches
  • Swelling
  • Bite marks
  • Tooth loss or chipping

For someone to be found guilty of ABH, they don’t need to have wilfully intended to cause an injury. It can be intentional or reckless in nature, and even a relatively gentle push could be classed as ABH if the victim suffers injuries consistent with ABH.

Grievous bodily harm (GBH) involves more serious injuries. The severity of injury is one of the important differences between ABH and GBH, with the two crimes differing in definition and sentencing guidelines.

ABH vs. GBH vs. common assault

Although all assaults are serious crimes and potentially life-changing ones for all parties, there are varying degrees of assault, according to UK law. Which crime a defendant is charged with will depend upon:

  • Their level of culpability
  • The injuries involved
  • Overall harmed caused
  • Aggravating factors

Common assault is the lowest form of assault. No physical contact is required for common assault to take place: threatening violence or verbally threatening someone is enough in certain circumstances.

Battery also comes under the umbrella of common assault, which does involve physical contact. This could be spitting, slapping or hitting someone in another way, whether there are minor injuries or none at all.

Where there is punching, kicking or weapons involved, it is quite possible that this would represent a case of ABH, which is a more serious form of assault than common assault. ABH could also be indicated by repeated threats or assaults. Alternatively, it might be that the victim is vulnerable or intimidated.

More serious injuries, particularly those from sustained assaults or using great force, are likely to meet the requirements for GBH. This type of assault causes serious detriment to the victim’s health, whether the harm is:

  • Physical, through wounding
  • Biologically, through a transmissible disease
  • Psychologically, when considerable psychological trauma results, including post traumatic stress disorder

What sentences can you get for ABH charges? 

Each case is unique and there are various factors that affect how long ABH sentences are. These include the severity of the injuries, the intent behind them, and any history between the defendant and the victim. 

Racially or religiously aggravated ABH also carries a heavier sentence: up to seven years in prison. Without such aggravating circumstances, the maximum sentence is five years in prison.

GBH convictions result in more severe sentences, with life imprisonment possible if you’re found guilty of GBH with intent. Even without intent, GBH carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison.

How are sentences for ABH decided?

The likely outcome of an ABH charge depends upon many factors, including how a defendant pleas, any previous convictions and if remorse is shown. Determining the defendant’s level of culpability for the crime is integral to sentencing, as is examining the level of harm caused to the victim.


There are three levels of culpability for ABH. Here are some of the key indicators for each, one or more of which might apply:

High culpability 

  • Considerable planning or premeditation involved
  • Use of a highly dangerous weapon or improvised weapon
  • A prolonged assault
  • Strangulation, asphyxiation or suffocation involved
  • Defendant played a leading role in a group assault
  • A vulnerable victim

Medium culpability 

  • Use of a less dangerous weapon
  • Lesser role in a group assault
  • Cases between high and lesser culpability

Lesser culpability 

  • An impulsive and short-lived assault
  • No weapon used
  • Could be classed as excessive self-defence
  • Defendant has a mental disorder or learning disability

When a defendant is charged with a first ABH offence, a fine or community service – or even a suspended sentence – is often more likely than an immediate custodial sentence. If you’re wondering whether you’ll go to jail for your first ABH offence, the answer is quite likely to be no, but specialist legal advice should be taken in all cases to get a more accurate answer. However, it should be noted that causing ABH to certain officials, such as police officers or immigration officers, makes a custodial sentence much more likely.

Regardless of the victim, ABH is a serious criminal offence, which can have a profound effect on your personal and professional life. Sound legal advice is crucial.


Examining the level of harm caused to a victim is central to distinguishing between forms of assault. But, even within the crime of ABH, determining the level of harm is also key to sentencing guidelines for ABH. There are three categories:

Category 1

A serious physical injury or psychological harm, and/or an attack with a significant impact on the victim.

Category 2

A level of harm less than category 1 but greater than category 3.

Category 3

An assault involving some level of physical injury or psychological damage, with a limited impact upon the victim.

What should you do if you have been charged with ABH? 

Before doing anything else, it’s important to seek the guidance of a specialist ABH solicitor. They’ll ensure you don’t incriminate yourself and follow the best course of action when you engage with the police.

If you’re guilty of the assault, it could be that your best course of action is to plead guilty. Doing so early long before any trial starts could reduce your eventual sentence by up to a third.

On the other hand, if you plead not guilty, skilled solicitors will develop a robust defence for you, based on the facts you give them.

Whatever the details of the case, lawyers can take you through the legal process, making certain you understand the charges you face and your options.

Related Articles