Assault is a complex area of law. Each case is different and depend on the parties involved, the location, possible motivations and the events that unfold. It’s up to the police and prosecutors to interpret the details of these cases and to initially assess the severity of the case and what type of assault may have been committed. The level of injury caused is the most important factor in determining what offence it may be charged as, this is the main distinction between the different levels of assault offences.

Inflicting intentional or reckless harm towards another individual is the general definition of assault in the United Kingdom. Assaults are typically referred to as offences “against the person”. Harm encompasses both physical and psychological harm, which includes causing someone to fear for their own safety.

The offence, most commonly known as GBH, ABH, Assault or Battery, each relate to a different severity of the offence, whereby differing degrees of injuries have been inflicted. These various degrees of assault will determine the potential consequences and punishment for someone accused or convicted of an offence against the person.




Grievous Bodily Harm (GBH)

What is GBH?

Inflicting grievous bodily harm to another person is the most serious form of assault, but it can be committed in two ways.

It can be intentionally inflicted, which is typically where the accused person is alleged to have intended to cause grievous levels of injury. This type of intentional wounding is contrary to Section 18 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 (OAPA) and carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Individuals convicted of a Section 18 wounding with intent offence will often receive lengthy prison sentences, often with significant restrictions on their freedom when they are released.

It is also possible to commit GBH recklessly. In this case, whilst still serious, the case is treated differently. GBH committed recklessly is contrary to Section 20 of the Offences against the Person Act 1861 (OAPA). A person convicted of this type of assault would be someone that didn’t intend to inflict a serious injury but did so nonetheless.

GBH, whether contrary to s.18 or s.20 OAPA, is the most serious because, in most cases, a victim of GBH is left with serious injuries, sometimes life changing or long term injury or scarring. Severe 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 acts and injuries constitute GBH?

If violence is inflicted with a weapon or the equivalent of a weapon, then the act is likely to be adjudged as inflicting grievous bodily harm intentionally (section 18). Weapon equivalents are objects, items or parts of the body that are not themselves weapons but can be a weapon when used intentionally, this includes the use of shod feet (kicking or stomping whilst wearing shoes), headbutting, the use of acid as a weapon or an animal.

It is possible to inflict GBH with one strike or punch. However, the more sustained, ferocious or prolonged the incident, the more likely it is to be viewed that the consequences were intended. Weapon usage can also change the dynamics of a case, for example, if an accused person were to strike a victim to the face once by a punch, resulting in a fractured eye socket, it can be viewed that the serious injury was not intended. On the other hand, if a knuckle duster was used, the fracturing of the eye socket will more likely be considered intentional.


What are the sentences for GBH?

As the most serious form of assault, the consequences for accused individuals reflect this. Depending on the factors of the case and the level of harm caused, starting points for sentencing can range between a 3 to 16 years’ custodial prison sentence – whether GBH was committed recklessly or intentionally will be the biggest factor in determining appropriate sentencing range by a court.

Generally speaking, sentences for GBH are the most severe of all assault charges. Along with other factors, such as the level of injury, the court will consider a number of options and determine whether rehabilitative, non-custodial alternatives to an immediate custodial term. Starting points can vary considerably, between 3 – 16 years’ custodial sentence, or if the facts of the case indicate a lower level of culpability, such as the use of a single blow, then the consequence could be as low as a community order.


Actual Bodily Harm (ABH)

What is ABH?

Where injuries are sustained through assault but do not cause serious injury, this may constitute the offence of assault occasioning actual bodily harm. Determining whether an injury should be deemed severe or not is often a case of a subjective review – this will usually be the discretion of the prosecutors or an investigating police officer, although legal guidelines and tests provide a basis for this assessment.


What injuries are deemed ABH?

Injuries that interfere with the health or personal comfort of a complainant may constitute the infliction of “actual” harm through assault. 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 must be proven. One such instance whereby notable harm was caused was exhibited in a case where the accused individual allegedly cut the hair of the complainant, which notable caused an impact in personal comfort.


What are the sentences for ABH?

The variation in potential sentences is notable for all charges relating to assault, should an accused individual plead guilty or be found guilty through a court trial, a number of sentences could be issued by prosecutors.

ABH cases can be heard at either Magistrates’ or Crown Courts, as an ‘either-way’ offence, this will depend on the severity the case; resulting consequences can range from community orders (if the individual is found to be of low risk) up to 3 years’ imprisonment in the most severe scenarios that are heard by the Crown Court.


Common Assault and Battery

What is common assault?

Common assault or battery normally involves the unlawful touching of a person (where they have not ‘silently’ consented, i.e. if jolted during a concert) but does not require there to have been any injury. By the letter of the law, common assault or battery is occasioned where there is more than merely transient or trifling contact, it is not necessary for the Police or Prosecution to prove injury. Normally, subject to some exceptions, the Prosecution will choose not to prosecute a case in court if there are no injuries at all as it will not be in the interests of justice to do so.

In general, most minor assaults which have caused minor injuries or passing discomfort or pain will be prosecuted as common assault.


What are the sentences for common assault?

Common assault is the only ‘main’ assault charge that is summary-online, meaning it can only be heard at Magistrates’ Court, unlike ABH offences which can be heard at either Magistrates’ or Crown Court. Where ABH is dealt with in the Magistrates’ court, it will often be sentenced in a similar way to common assault, with the main point of assessment being the circumstances, along with the aggravating and mitigating factors. The maximum penalty for common assault is a 6-month custodial prison sentence, with the minimum sentence being a nominal fine (around 50% of the individual’s weekly income).


Arrested for an alleged 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. Lawtons team of criminal defence solicitors in London are available to represent accused individuals 24-hours a day to protect your rights and help you achieve a positive outcome.