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ABH / GBH / Common Assault – what’s the difference and what should I know?

Posted on 12th December 2018

‘Assault’ is a generic criminal term used to cover a wide range of offences. However, two offences both deemed ‘assaults’ can be at polar ends in terms of harm caused and the ultimate sentence the Court can impose. For example, the lowest category of assault, a common assault, attracts a maximum 6 months’ imprisonment whereas causing grievous bodily harm (GBH), the highest category of assault, can in some cases invoke a maximum sentence of 16 years’ custody. The table below outlines the key differences between various types of assaults and what you need to know should you be accused of one.

 

Type of assaultWhat do the prosecution need to prove?What does that mean?
(Some of the terms apply to more than one offence)
Where will the case be heard?Sentencing guidelines
Causing GBH/wounding with intent
s.18 Offences against the Person Act 1861
That the suspect:

  • Unlawfully AND maliciously
  • Wounded OR inflicted GBH
  • Upon another person
  • With intent to cause GBH OR resist lawful apprehension of yourself or another
Unlawful means without excuse or justification at law (e.g. self-defence).

Maliciously means ill-will or an evil motive. You must intend to do the harm that was done or be reckless as to whether the harm will occur – it does not require ill-will towards the person injured.

Recklessly is being aware of the existence of a risk but nonetheless going on to take that risk.

Wound means breaking the skin.

GBH is serious or really serious harm

Intent will be determined by considering the suspect’s motives or desire

Lawful apprehension – e.g. police arrest

Assault – see definitions of common assault below

Actual bodily harm is any hurt which interferes with health or comfort but not to a considerable degree. This must be more than merely transient and trifling and normally there must be some form of injury

Note on battery – no injury needs to have been sustained. Common examples are spitting, pushing or slapping.

Note on assault – this is typically threatening to use violence against another person either through words or behaviour.

Crown Court3-16 years’ custody
Causing GBH/wounding (without intent)
s.20 Offences against the Person Act 1861
That the suspect:

  • Unlawfully AND maliciously
  • Wounded OR inflicted GBH
  • Upon another person
Magistrates’ or Crown Court depending on the seriousness of the offence and the wishes of the DefendantCommunity Order – 5 years’ custody*
*If the offence is racially or religiously aggravated, the maximum sentence is increased to 7 years’ custody
Assault occasioning actual bodily harm (ABH)
s.47 Offences against the Person Act 1861
That the suspect:

  • Unlawfully
  • Assaulted
  • Another person
  • Causing them actual bodily harm
Magistrates’ or Crown Court depending on the seriousness of the offence and the wishes of the DefendantFine – 5 years’ custody*
*If the offence is racially or religiously aggravated, the maximum sentence is increased to 7 years’ custody
Common assault – battery
s.39 Criminal Justice Act 1988
That the suspect:

  • Intentionally OR recklessly
  • Applied unlawful force
  • To another person
Magistrates’ courtDischarge – 26 weeks’ custody*
*If the offence is racially or religiously aggravated, the maximum sentence is increased to 2 years’ custody
Common assault – assault
s.39 Criminal Justice Act 1988
That the suspect:

  • Intentionally or recklessly
  • Caused another person
  • To apprehend immediate AND unlawful
  • Personal violence
Discharge – 26 weeks’ custody*
*If the offence is racially or religiously aggravated, the maximum sentence is increased to 2 years’ custody

 

Defences

There are a number of defences available to individuals accused of the assaults listed above including accident, consent, lawful sport, lawful correction and self-defence. However, not all of them apply to each category, for example lawful correction (i.e. a parent disciplining their child) is only a defence to common assault under s.39 Criminal Justice Act 1988. Advice must therefore be taken as to whether a defence is available based on the allegation.

Self-defence is the most common defence raised in assault cases. The suspect can raise that they were seeking to defend themselves, another person or property. The suspect’s use of force must be reasonable and proportionate in the circumstances and a Court will be looking closely at the degree of force used. Therefore someone slapping you is highly unlikely to ever justify causing GBH. The suspect will need to provide sufficient evidence to raise the defence but it is for the prosecution to disprove it.

In reality there is extensive room for overlap between the potential offences and defences and the above should only be used as a guide. Specific decisions on charge and the defences that apply will always need to be reviewed in light of the specific facts of each individual case.

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