What does it mean to be charged for GBH without intent under UK law?

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Nick Titchener

Managing Partner

In Brief

GBH (grievous bodily harm) always carries a severe sentence, whether with or without intent. However, factors such as evidence of planning, prior threats and the adaptation of a weapon can make the difference between the assault being charged as a Section 18 or Section 20 offence. Section 20 assaults do inflict injuries which are seriously detrimental to the health of the victim, but in these cases the defendant has no mens rea (knowledge or intention of wrongdoing), and sentences are capped at five years’ imprisonment.

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Have you been accused of committing GBH without intent? If you are found guilty of committing GBH without intent, the consequences are severe.

Nick Titchener, director and solicitor advocate at Lawtons, one of London’s most respected criminal law firms, discusses this complex area of the law and its implications.

What does GBH stand for in the UK?

Grievous bodily harm – or GBH – is the most serious form of non-fatal assault as the injuries are deemed to cause serious detriment to a victim’s health, which differs to ABH. GBH is also known as ‘wounding with intent’.

GBH can be committed in two ways, which affect the level of severity of offence. The difference between the two levels of assault depends on whether the crime was committed intentionally or recklessly.

What is classified as GBH within UK law?

The following injuries are classified as GBH:

  • An injury resulting in permanent disability, loss of sensory function or visible disfigurement
  • Broken bones – including a fractured skull, compound fractures, broken cheekbone, jaw or ribs
  • Injuries that cause a substantial loss of blood
  • Serious psychiatric injury

If a defendant is charged with committing GBH without intent, it does not necessarily mean that they inflicted less severe injuries on the victim. All of the above injuries can be inflicted intentionally or recklessly and it is this factor that will ultimately determine the charge and punishment given for the offence.

GBH without intent is committed when someone inflicts really serious injuries without intending to do so, but has acted recklessly in causing that harm or pain. When it is a case of GBH with intent, the defendant must have intended that the consequences of the assault were going to cause very serious bodily harm.

Section 20 assault

A Section 20 assault is committed if the defendant:

  1. Unlawfully wounds another person (using unlawful force)
  2. Inflicts grievous bodily harm on another person

It is not possible to attempt to commit a Section 20 GBH offence. If a defendant attempts to cause a victim serious harm, it must be assumed that they intended to do so. In order to be charged for GBH without intent, it must be considered that the act was reckless and committed without intention.

Under Section 20 GBH, the defendant lacks the necessary mens rea – the knowledge or intention of wrongdoing – for the more serious offence, meaning the defendant did not have the intention.

Seriously harming a victim without intent is classified as a Section 20 assault – a less serious form of GBH. Section 20 assault, unlike Section 18 assault which is intentional – can be heard in both the magistrates’ court and crown court, albeit a case will normally be dealt with in the latter.

Section 20 GBH sentencing guidelines

A section 20 assault committed in the UK carries a maximum custodial sentence of five years and/or an unlimited fine. If tried and found guilty in a magistrates’ court, the maximum penalty is a custodial sentence of six months and/or a fine.  

What is the difference between a Section 18 and a Section 20 assault?

The main difference between a Section 18 and a Section 20 assault is the issue of intent. The ultimate severity of an injury does not determine the classification of the offence or indeed the resulting sentence, although it can go some way towards determining intent.

Factors indicating an assault should be classified as a section 18 rather than a section 20 include:

  1. Evidence of a planned or repeated attack
  2. Prior threats
  3. The deliberate selection of a weapon
  4. Adapting or altering an item with the intention of causing harm, such as smashing a glass prior to an attack
  5. Using a weapon on the victim’s head, or kicking the victim in the head

Racially or religiously aggravated GBH

If an offence of GBH/unlawful wounding is racially or religiously aggravated, it can carry a maximum sentence of seven years’ imprisonment. Such offences occur when race or religion are the main motivation for the attack or the offender is part of a group that promotes hostility towards people of certain races or religions.

What to do if you’re arrested for assault

If you are arrested by police for GBH, then your first step should be to seek immediate legal representation, as the police begin building a case against you from the moment you are arrested.

Even if you’ve already been represented by the duty solicitor at the police station, you can instruct the team of criminal defence solicitors at Lawtons, who are experts in this complex area of criminal law.

We are available to represent accused individuals 24 hours a day – to protect your rights and give you the best chance of a positive outcome. Contact us to discuss your options and how we can prepare the best case from the outset.

About the author

Nick Titchener, director and solicitor advocate of Lawtons, is a dedicated criminal solicitor with considerable experience in 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, a specialist firm of criminal law defence solicitors with branches across London, Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and Essex.

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