What happens if assault charges are dropped according to UK law?

Reviewed by Nick Titchener on 23rd August 2023

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Nick Titchener

Managing Partner

In Brief

Charges for assault can be dropped by the police or Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), not by the complainant directly. This is usually because there is not sufficient evidence to convict, a witness statement has been withdrawn or charges have been deemed not to be in the victim’s interest. Although the ‘double jeopardy’ law aims to prevent people from being tried twice for the same offence, charges of assault may be reinstated if the case is serious enough and new evidence comes to light.


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

If you are found guilty of assault the consequences are severe, but what happens if assault charges are dropped? Nick Titchener, director and solicitor advocate at London Criminal Defence Solicitors, Lawtons, discusses this complex area of the law and its implications.

There are a number of reasons and scenarios whereby an assault charge could be dropped by the police or the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).

If you are involved in a police investigation relating to one of the degrees of assault, then it is vital to understand how and why these charges could be dropped.

Can the CPS drop charges?

It is important to understand that it is not for a complainant to drop the allegations. The decision to drop a case or pursue it is one that is taken by the police or CPS, often in conjunction and having taken into account a range of views, including those being expressed by the original complainant.

It is important to note that dropped charges and an acquittal by a not guilty verdict are two very different things. Dropped charges occur when either:

  • The police cannot compile enough evidence to secure a realistic prospect of a conviction
  • The CPS deems a case to not be in the interests of justice to pursue

The prospect of an assault charge being dropped is a goal for many accused individuals, one which may provide a huge source of relief. However, the process behind charges being dropped isn’t straightforward.

Whilst it does sometimes require the cooperation of the accused person, the amount and type of cooperation can be a careful tactical balance, weighing up the advantages of cooperating and disclosing matters to the investigating team as opposed to the disadvantages of possibly giving information which may actually strengthen as case against the accused person.

To cooperate effectively whilst protecting your rights, it is recommended that the accused individual seeks expert legal advice as soon as possible, which will heighten the chance of a positive outcome being achieved

What are the degrees of assault in the UK?

There are several degrees of assault in the UK:

  • Common assault
  • Racially aggravated common assault
  • Battery – including cases of domestic violence
  • Unlawful wounding
  • Inflicting GBH
  • Single-blow GBH
  • Premeditated GBH
  • Racially aggravated GBH
  • Assault occasioning ABH
  • Premeditated ABH

 Why are assault charges dropped?

Assault charges can be dropped for a number of different reasons. Three of the most common reasons cited for charges being dropped by police or the CPS are:

1. A lack of sufficient evidence

A common reason for dropping assault charges is a lack of sufficient evidence. Every case will be different, but many assault cases are reliant on witnesses and statements to provide a basis for prosecuting the accused individual, whereby on an objective review of the evidence allows a prosecutor to conclude that there is a realistic prospect of a conviction if the evidence in those witness statements is believed.

If there is not a realistic prospect of a conviction because the evidence is undermined or because it is discredited, the case may be dropped due to a lack of sufficiently credible evidence.

However if there is sufficient evidence available, during trial it is possible that the evidence can be found to be flawed, which may result in the charges being dropped even very late in the day.

2. Withdrawn witness statements

As many assault charges are based on witnesses and statements. If a witness withdraws their statement, this can impact the value of evidence. However, the mere withdrawing of support by a complainant or witness is not the same as that witness or complainant saying that they have lied.

If a witness or complainant admits to lying, they are admitting to making a false statement, which in turn can mean that the witness may be arrested and prosecuted for perverting the course of justice – a very serious offence in itself.

If witness or complainant withdraws their support the reasons for this will be carefully looked at by the police, in part to make sure that no undue force or influence has been applied to the person. 

Also, if a witness or complainant fails to turn up to court, charges can also be dropped, particularly where cases are reliant on victim statements to secure a conviction.

The CPS and police do not act as lawyers for victims, but it is at their discretion to continue a case or submit summons, which will oblige a victim to attend the court date. It is also important to note that there are serious offences of interfering with complainants or witnesses.

Requesting a witness withdraws a statement for example could be seen to indicate a higher level of blame and show a lack of remorse, potentially increasing the potential severity of punishment. If there is any suggestion that a witness has been intimidated to withdraw their statement, it is very likely that the person/ people involved would be arrested and face further, more serious charges.

3. The decision to take the offence to court is not in victim’s interest

In 2012, one in ten criminal cases were dropped after the police made a charge. The two tests which determine whether a case should be dropped or brought to court involve the existence of substantial evidence and the pursuit of conviction if it is in the public interest.

The more severe the charges are, then the more likely the case will continue to court. This means if an offence is for aggravated common assault, actual bodily harm or grievous bodily harm, then the case is likely to be continued.

Who decides to drop assault charges?

The decision to drop an assault charge can be instigated by a number of parties who are involved in an investigation or criminal charge. Most often these decisions are made by the police themselves, or the investigating authorities.

The CPS can however decide to drop charges at the latter stages of police enquiries, or charges can be dropped at the early stages of police enquiry if they are directly sourcing from the influence of the complainant (the victim).

It is also possible for the CPS to discontinue a case when it has already come to court. This may happen if further evidence comes to light that undermines the original allegation.

When are assault charges dropped?

Assault charges can be dropped at a number of stages:

  1. During initial enquiries
  2. At police investigation stage
  3. At the conclusion of a police investigation
  4. In court

Most commonly, charges are dropped at either end of an investigation as a result of the failure of the two tests which applied when determining whether a case should be charged.

Even if the police decide to charge an individual, these charges can be dropped if the case fails to meet the standards required in evidence to pursue a criminal conviction due to further information or evidence coming to light.

If insufficient evidence is found, or evidence does not provide a realistic prospect of conviction, then the police may decide to drop the case. If there is sufficient evidence, then the second test will be considered.

The second test – called the public interest test – assesses whether it is in the interest of society that a case is followed up to Court. Typically, the more severe the case the more likely it is to pass this test. Often the interests of the victim are considered in this decision, with views taken by the victim’s family or the complainant(s) themselves.

Can an assault charge arise after being dropped?

There is a lot of confusion about ‘double jeopardy’ – the law which prevented individuals from being tried for the same crime twice. This was recently removed but only in relation to very serious cases.

When a case is deemed serious enough and if new compelling evidence comes to light that will increase the likelihood of a conviction, then a case can be reopened, reinvestigated and retried. It is important to stress that only criminal offences of a very serious nature will be reopened. The rule regarding double jeopardy would not apply in the vast majority of cases.

If the CPS decide to discontinue a case due to it not being in the public interest or due to a lack of evidence being available, they will normally make it clear when they announce their decision that it is possible for the case to be reviewed if new or further evidence comes to light.

Similarly, if charges are dropped prior to the conclusion of a police investigation, then a charge could potentially be reopened if the new evidence is deemed of value. This may happen when the results of a forensic examination were not known when the case was dropped that then came to light through ongoing or related investigations.

If assault charges are dropped do they stay on record?

The stage at which assault charges are dropped will determine whether the offence is recorded on an individual’s criminal record.

If the charge was dropped after a police charge and a court case had commenced, then it would be recorded by the Criminal Records Bureau, along with record of the arrest.

However, if charges are dropped prior to the conclusion of a police investigation, then a record of the charge would not usually have been made, other than to record the arrest.

Do you need help with an assault charge?

It’s not always possible to get assault charges dropped, but acting upon the expertise of a specialist assault defence lawyer will best serve you from the moment you are aware a charge could arise.

Defences are often formed around self-defence or other avenues of investigation. An early review of the case facts by an expert will enable you to form a strong defence case which will be best placed to help you achieve a positive outcome should the charge be taken through to court.

The team of specialist criminal defence solicitors at Lawtons are available to represent any accused individuals 24-hours a day, to protect their rights and help them to achieve a positive outcome.

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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