The offence of assault is complex and is classified with varying degrees of severity. Classified within the Criminal Justice Act 1988, actual bodily harm (ABH) and grievous bodily harm (GBH) are determined by:

  1. The level of foresight
  2. The motivation for the offence
  3. Any injuries inflicted

ABH and GBH have differing convictions and sentences.

What is GBH?  

GBH – grievous bodily harm – is the most serious assault as the 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

The offence is classified under Sections 18 and 20 of the Offence Against the Person Act 1861 (OAPA).

GBH can be committed either intentionally or recklessly and may be classified by a number of factors, including:

  • Any injuries caused by the assault will be regarded as severely detrimental to a victim’s health
  • The law distinguishes between intentional GBH and reckless GBH, with the former being a more serious offence
  • Sentence ranges for GBH are broad. Ranging from community orders to life imprisonment, the sentence will depend on the level of injuries and the final charge

What is the sentence for GBH?

If GBH is committed intentionally, the maximum penalty is life imprisonment. If the assault involves the use of a weapon, the offence will consequently require a more serious conviction, as the assault  will be considered to be intentional. Seriously harming a victim recklessly but without intent is classified as a Section 20 Assault – a less serious form of GBH.  

GBH is the most serious form of assault and as such, the sentences reflect this.

A conviction under Section 20 could sanction a maximum custodial sentence of 5 years, whilst under Section 18 the maximum could be a life sentence. Usually sentences for GBH range from 3 to 16 years in prison, but this depends wholly on the facts of the individual case. If there are any mitigating factors, a lower level of culpability can be assumed which may result in a sentence as low as a community order.

What is ABH?

Actual bodily harm is a criminal offence contrary to section 47 of the OAPA. Classified as less serious than GBH, ABH can be classified by:

  • Injuries that are less severe than in GBH cases, but must still be of provable detriment to the victim’s health
  • The offence can be committed recklessly or intentionally, much like GBH. The intention need only be to apply unlawful force
  • Sentences can range from community orders to up to 3 years’ imprisonment

As with GBH, ABH can be committed either intentionally or recklessly. The intention needn’t be to injure the individual, only to apply unlawful force to another.

ABH can be tried at either the magistrates’ court or the crown court. The location will depend on the circumstances and aggravating factors involved in the case.

Sentencing for ABH is less severe than GBH and will range from a community order to a maximum penalty of 3 years’ imprisonment in the most severe cases – which are heard by the crown court. A prison sentence is more likely to be given if the assault is not a first-time offence.

What to do if you are accused of ABH or GBH

If you are accused of ABH or GBH, you should seek expert legal advice at the earliest stage. In doing so, you will be in the best position to allocate appropriate representation.
It is important to seek out expert advice – which Lawtons solicitors can offer – as early as possible to understand the implications of your individual case and ensure you can gain the very best representation.

Whilst many will try to claim selfdefence, this is a highly specialist aspect of any case and requires a careful consideration of the circumstances. One of the most significant factors in determining whether someone may have acted in self-defence is the extent of the force used and the reasons for it, if deemed reasonable in the circumstances. For example, it is worth noting that provocation is not deemed sufficient defence to any allegation of ABH and GBH, but every one of the self defence cases heard each year will have their own unique characteristics and occurrences.

Knowledge and experience of how courts apply characteristics to cases of assault and the application of certain mitigating factors, characterise the expertise needed to successfully underpin a legal defence case. Appointing an expert within this aspect of law will ensure you are best served to reduce any potential penalties that could occur in the worst-case scenario.

If you are under police investigation for either GBH or ABH, it is important to consult with a specialist solicitor as soon as possible so that all the facts of the case can be investigated at the same time, and the best guidance provided.

Even if you’ve consulted the duty solicitor at the police station, you can instruct a criminal defence solicitor from Lawtons  to assist you. We are available to represent accused individuals 24 hours a day to protect your rights and help you achieve a positive outcome in your case.


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