Common Assault, Actual Bodily Harm and Grievous Bodily Harm

Common assault, actual bodily harm (ABH) and grievous bodily harm (GBH) are criminal offences under the Criminal Justice Act 1988 (‘CJA’) and the Offences Against the Person Act 1861.

Common assault

What is common assault?

The offence of common assault under section 39 CJA is committed when someone assaults another person or commits a battery.

  • A battery is the application of unlawful force, for instance, a push or slap, or spitting at someone.
  • An assault is when someone makes another person fear the use of immediate force against them. This could be a raised fist, or running a finger across a throat. Physical contact is not necessary for common assault to take place.

Will there be a prison sentence?

Common assault carries a maximum penalty of six months in prison and/or a fine or community order. A prison sentence is generally reserved for cases where serious injury was caused, and higher culpability is present. The offender will have higher culpability where, for instance, he or she has previous convictions or there are aggravating factors, such as the attack being racially motivated, the assault was premediated, or the victim was vulnerable.

In other cases, a fine and community order may be the outcome.

Actual Bodily Harm (ABH)

What is Actual Bodily Harm?

Assault causing actual bodily harm (ABH) is a criminal offence under Section 47 of the Offences Against the Person Act. ABH involves assault or battery causing actual physical harm to the victim. The harm does not have to be serious, but must involve more than a shove to sustain a charge of ABH. Harm such as bruises, scratches and bite marks is sufficient.

ABH only requires an intention to apply unlawful force to someone, not an intention to cause actual bodily harm. For instance, if someone pushes the victim who then hits his head against a wall, he will have intended to apply unlawful force and could be charged with ABH – even if he did not intend the victim to hurt their head.

Will there be a prison sentence?

ABH carries a maximum sentence of five years and or a fine (depending on the seriousness of the offence).

For a first offence, a fine and or community order may be imposed. If the offender has previous convictions or if there are aggravating factors, a prison sentence is more likely.

Grievous Bodily Harm (GBH)

What is Grievous Bodily Harm?

Assault causing grievous bodily harm (GBH) is a criminal offence under Sections 18 and 20 of the Offences Against the Person Act.

There must be “really serious harm” caused to the victim as a result of the assault or battery; for example, stabbing the victim. If there was an intention to cause some pain or harm but not to inflict the “really serious harm”, a Section 20 offence of “wounding with intent” will have been committed.

However, if there was intention to inflict “really serious harm” then the more serious offence of GBH under Section 18 will have been committed. If, for instance, someone head-butts the victim and they then break their nose, a lesser charge under Section 20 is likely. However, if someone head-butts the victim intending them to sustain really serious harm, for instance, by breaking their nose – a charge under Section 18 is likely.

Will there be a prison sentence?

A conviction under Section 20 carries a maximum sentence of five years, while a conviction under Section 18 could result in a life sentence. In practice, the sentencing range is from 3 to 16 years depending on the circumstances and any aggravating factors.

Victims of assault may be able to claim criminal injury compensation if their injuries are severe enough.

About the Author

Nicola Laver LLB

Nicola is a dual qualified journalist and non-practising solicitor. She is a legal journalist, editor and author with more than 20 years' experience writing about the law.

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