On 13th September 2018, amongst much fanfare, the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018 received Royal Assent. In two months it will pass into law. Chris Bryant MP, who laid the Private Members Bill, said “all too often attackers get away with little more than a slap on the wrist”. News outlets trailed this new law as the answer. Headlines crowed that prison sentences for those that assault emergency workers would “double”. But is this law quite as dramatic as it seems?
The problem fuelling the passing of the Act is clear. Attacks on emergency workers – defined here as including police officers, prison guards, NHS staff and firefighters – appear to be increasing. There are alarming reports of those battling to save lives, having to defend themselves from assault and harassment. Who wouldn’t share Justice Minister Roy Stewart’s view that they must be able to do their job “without the fear of being assaulted”?
So this law makes a new offence. It is a specific crime to commit a common assault, or battery, against an emergency worker “acting in the exercise of functions as such a worker”. It is already an offence to commit a common assault or battery against any person. And there is already an offence of assaulting a police officer in the exercise of their duty. This new law creates a separate offence for all emergency workers (including police officers).
Common assault or battery is the lowest form of assault which attracts a maximum sentence of 6 months and consequently can only be tried and sentenced in the Magistrates’ Court. Assaulting a police officer in the execution of their duty likewise attracts a maximum sentence of 6 months. This new law states that if a person commits the same form of assault but it is committed against an emergency worker doing their job, the maximum sentence is higher – 12 months – both in the Magistrates’ Court and the Crown Court.
But therein lies the rub. The 12 months sentence (i.e. the “doubling” of the sentencing powers spoken of) will only apply in the Magistrates Court after another law increasing magistrates sentencing powers from 6 to 12 months comes into force. That provision was within the 2003 Criminal Justice Act and has still, over a decade later, not been enacted. So if a person is charged with this offence and their case stays before the Magistrates’ Court, there is no doubling of sentencing powers.
The other way in which this new law is said to increase prison sentences is that it directs courts to consider actions against emergency workers doing their job as an “aggravating factor” when considering how serious the offending is. Aggravating factors are ones that make the offence worse and therefore should increase the punishment. The Act lists crimes where judges must consider this an aggravating factor – but says it could in fact be an aggravating factor for any offence.
Again, this sounds more far-reaching and dramatic than it is. Because attacking a person serving the public is already an aggravating factor to be taken into account when considering sentencing. This law specifies emergency workers, but their special position as those serving the public was already recognised.
Those advocating for the emergency services, alarmed by a rise in attacks, will be pleased that their worries have been recognised. This Act can underline the public concerns, and show the governments support for those serving the public. But will it “double prison sentences”?