What constitutes a domestic assault charge in the UK?

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Nick Titchener

Managing Partner

In Brief

Like any assault, domestic assault is either common assault, ABH or GBH. It is characterised as domestic by the relationship of the involved parties, and often characterised by controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour. It does not necessarily involve partners. Domestic abuse can be physical, sexual, psychological, emotional or financial, and depending upon specific circumstances sentences may include restraining orders, occupation orders or non-molestation orders, breaches of which can lead to imprisonment.


Have you been accused of committing domestic assault? What are the possible consequences of a conviction under UK law?

If you are found guilty of the offence, the consequences are severe. Nick Titchener, director and solicitor advocate at Lawtons, discusses this complex area of the law and its implications.

The laws surrounding domestic violence, abuse and assault are in a state of transition. The UK government has launched a number of initiatives over the past 10 years intended to change the way domestic cases are dealt with, during both police investigations and court proceedings.

Are there specific domestic assault, abuse or domestic violence offences?

Specific offences for domestic assault, abuse or domestic violence do not currently exist under UK law, as each is attributed to a different area of criminal law. For instance, an arrest for an act of domestic assault would be charged as one of three assault charges:

  1. Common assault
  2. ABH
  3. GBH

If you have been accused of ABH or GBH and want to know the possible consequences under UK law, we explain the differences between ABH and GBH and the severity of the punishments handed out by the courts.

In 2015, new legislation was introduced which criminalised the use of ‘controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship’ through the Serious Crime Act 2015 (section 76), which was introduced to prevent emotional or psychological abuse in domestic scenarios.

There are currently a number of conflicting definitions of domestic abuse, including between the government’s adopted definition and the legal definition provided by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). It is important to know the differences between these definitions to know precisely where you stand in incidents involving allegations of domestic assault.

What is domestic assault?

Although domestic assault is not an offence in itself, an incident is applied to the most relevant category of offence, such as assault, a specific sexual offence or an offence described by the new serious crime act.

A domestic offence is characterised by the relationship of the involved parties. This could, for example, be between family members, partners or historic partners where coercive, controlling or threatening behaviour is proven to have been exhibited.

Family members are considered to be both direct and indirect relatives, including:

  1. Parents
  2. Aunts
  3. Uncles
  4. Siblings
  5. Children
  6. Grandparents

Those indirectly related, such as through a familial marriage or adoption, are also classified as family members.

What are the types of domestic abuse?

There are three main classifications of domestic abuse in UK law. These are physical abuse, sexual abuse, and psychological, emotional and financial abuse.

Physical domestic abuse

Punching, kicking, the use of a weapon or any other violent act that disrupts the comfort or health of a complainant is considered to be an assault.

When this has occurred within a domestic environment, the courts, magistrates and police are instructed to follow special guidelines to reduce the emotional trauma of cases which often affect children and other family members.

The severity of an offence arising from physical abuse will depend on the level of injuries sustained, which are described by the varying degrees of assault. If certain characteristics are found, for example physical abuse occurred over a sustained period of time and/or repeated, then the case may be defined as ‘aggravated’ – showing a higher level of culpability of the offender – which could impact the category of sentences available to prosecutors.

In 2005, specialist domestic violence courts (SDVCs) were introduced to cater to the emotionally traumatic nature of domestic abuse cases, whereby magistrates are specially trained to review cases and action the most appropriate verdicts and sentences.

This increases the complexity of domestic abuse cases and heightens the need for specialist advice within the field of domestic violence.

Sexual domestic abuse

Acts of sexual abuse are categorised under the most relevant category of offence – for example rape or indecent assault – if this is deemed appropriate during police investigations.

However, guidelines specifically outline the different processes when an offence is said to have been committed in a domestic environment.

For this reason, the legal guidelines suggest that prosecutors and magistrates critically scrutinise the actions of the offender to determine their motives and assess their level of culpability (blame). The skills and experience of a specialist defence lawyer are vital to present and protect the interests of the accused person, as only by doing so can there be a balanced and fair approach to a case.

Sexual abuse cases are viewed very seriously in law and cases of this nature are usually heard by the crown court. The nature of individual cases and resulting police investigations will determine whether this is the most appropriate course of action.

Psychological, emotional, and financial domestic abuse

The Serious Crime Act – which was introduced in 2015 – now specifically prohibits the use of coercive or controlling behaviour within a familial environment. A wide variety of examples of psychological, emotional and financial abuse are now clearly addressed in law which means the following acts are now prohibited under this law:

  • Reading private emails, texts or social media messages
  • Taking control over aspects of someone’s life, such as what they wear and when they can leave their property
  • Withholding money or preventing someone from earning money – investigations into this new offence will often involve the collection of evidence such as social media records, text messages and interactions with support services, which means that investigations will almost certainly be intrusive

What should you do if you are accused of domestic assault?

Police investigations into domestic assault charges will always be emotionally taxing, often intrusive and potentially very distressing, particularly where children are involved.

It’s vital that you act upon specialist legal advice from the very first instance you are aware an investigation may arise, as due to the nature of cases it is easy to act emotionally or jeopardise your legal standing through misjudgement, which could reduce your ability to achieve a positive outcome.

The police or courts will often impose restrictions on who a person accused of domestic assault can see and where they can go. Sometimes these conditions are imposed before a court date has even been arranged.

From the point when a person has been arrested, sometimes these conditions are imposed even when the complainant does not want the restrictions to be imposed.

In this case, it is possible for applications to be made to the police or court for these restrictions and conditions to be varied or removed. Specialist legal advice is vital in these circumstances.

When a domestic violence case comes to court, the delay between the first court date and the trial date can be very short. This has its advantages as it means that cases are dealt with promptly.

However, it can mean that there isn’t always much time for the case to be prepared. For someone in this position, it is vital to have a solicitor and legal team that specialises in these cases and can start preparing the case quickly and efficiently.

Sometimes, legal aid may be available when the case has come to court. However, prior to the court case, if funding is in place, we can start to prepare the case immediately to ensure and maximise the best outcome.

If you need help defending yourself from an accusation of domestic abuse, speak to an expert criminal defence solicitor as soon as you can, ideally from the outset or as soon as possible. Consult an expert domestic violence solicitor at Lawtons for advice and assistance.

About the author

Nick Titchener oversees the overall management of Lawtons Solicitors and is a director and solicitor advocate. Nick’s astute and meticulous approach means he thrives on even the most intricate case. He is a dedicated criminal solicitor with considerable experience in legal cases including violence and assault and sexual offences. 

Lawtons criminal law defence solicitors have branches across London, Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and Essex.

FAQs about Domestic Assault Charges

What are my rights when arrested for domestic abuse?

You should never answer any police questions without a solicitor present. If you are arrested for domestic abuse, you need to understand your rights so that you can avoid saying something that could harm your defence. After interviewing you, the police can either say you are free to leave with a caution or you will be charged and released on bail with a date for your court appearance.

What are the penalties for domestic abuse?

Penalties for domestic abuse include the following court orders:
  • Restraining Orders – breaching a Restraining Order can lead to imprisonment.
  • Occupation Orders – The accused can be forced to leave the home they share with the alleged victim.
  • Non-Molestation Orders (NMO) – if you were to breach an NMO you can face up to 5 years in prison.

What defence is there if you are accused of domestic abuse?

There are a number of defences that will allow you to avoid prosecution:
  • The alleged victim can make false allegations, especially in acrimonious separation.
  • Your actions could have been in self-defence.
  • You could admit part of the alleged incident, but dispute other accusations.
There can be mitigating circumstances which allow for criminal penalties to be reduced:
  • Admitting the offence in the first police interview
  • Cooperation with authorities
  • The age of the offender
  • Mental disability illness
  • Extreme provocation
  • Where there are multiple offenders, the offender’s level of involvement
  • Displaying genuine remorse

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