Degrees Assault

Assault is a complex area of the law. Each and every assault case is different and the outcome depends on several factors, including:

  1. The parties involved
  2. The location
  3. Possible motivations
  4. The events that unfold

It’s up to the police and a team of prosecutors to interpret the details of each assault case 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 level an offence may be charged as, as this is the main distinction between the different levels of assault offences.

What is the legal definition of assault in the UK?

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.

Different types of assault – such as GBH, ABH, common assault or battery – each relate to a different severity of the offence of assault against the person, 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 committing an offence against the person.

What are the degrees and types of assault?


Varying degrees of assault

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What is Grievous Bodily Harm? (GBH)

Inflicting grievous bodily harm to another person is the most serious form of assault. The offence of GBH can be committed in two ways:

  1. 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 offence of wounding with intent will often receive lengthy prison sentences, often with significant restrictions on their freedom when they are released
  2. It is also possible to commit GBH recklessly. In this instance, while 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, which can sometimes be life changing. They could also be left with long term injuries or scarring.

Severe injuries are deemed to cause serious detriment to a victim’s health, whether:

  • Physically through wounding
  • Biologically through the transmission of disease
  • 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 classified 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, such as:

  • The use of shod feet (kicking or stomping whilst wearing shoes)
  • Headbutting
  • The use of acid as a weapon
  • The use of an animal as a weapon

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 with a punch which resulted in a fractured eye socket, it could 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 would be more likely to be considered intentional.

What are the sentences for GBH in the UK?

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 from a 3 year to a 16 year custodial prison sentence.

Whether the offence of GBH was committed recklessly or intentionally is the primary factor in the court determining the appropriate sentencing range.

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 are suitable, compared to an immediate custodial term. Starting points can vary considerably, from a 3 year custodial sentence to a 16 year custodial sentence.

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.

What is ABH? (Actual Bodily Harm)

Where injuries are sustained through assault but do not cause serious injury, this may constitute the offence of assault occasioning actual bodily harm (ABH). 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 as 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 notably caused a negative impact on personal comfort and confidence.

What are the sentences for ABH in the UK?

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’ courts or crown courts, as an ‘either-way’ offence. Where the case is heard will depend on the severity the case and resulting consequences can range from community orders (if the individual is found to be of low risk) to up to 3 years’ imprisonment in the most severe scenarios that are heard by the crown court.

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 would 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 in the UK?

Common assault is the only ‘main’ assault charge that is summary-online, meaning it can only be heard at a magistrates’ court, unlike ABH offences which can be heard at either the magistrates’ court or the 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. This is usually around 50% of the individual’s weekly income.

Have you been arrested for an alleged assault?

If you have been arrested by the police on an assault charge, your first step should be to seek expert legal representation, as the police begin building a case against you from the moment you are arrested. The team of criminal defence solicitors at Lawtons are available to represent accused individuals 24-hours a day to protect your rights and help you achieve a positive outcome.

About the author

Nick Titchener, director and solicitor advocate of Lawtons, is a dedicated criminal solicitor with considerable experience in the most serious 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.

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