Assault comes under two sections of law, the difference being the level of intent in the assault.

Wounding / Causing grievous bodily harm with intent, contrary to section 18 Offences Against the Person Act 1861.

This offence is committed when a person unlawfully and maliciously causes grievous bodily harm with intent or unlawfully and maliciously wounds another with intent.

It is an indictable only offence which carries a maximum penalty of imprisonment for life.

The distinction between charges under section 18 and section 20 is one of intent. The gravity of the injury is not the determining factor, although it may provide some evidence of intent.

Factors that may indicate the specific intent include:

  • a repeated or planned attack.
  • deliberate selection of a weapon or adaptation of an article to cause injury, such as breaking a glass before an attack.
  • making prior threats.
  • using a weapon or kicking the complainant.

What is grievous bodily harm?

Grievous bodily harm means really serious bodily harm. It is for a jury to decide whether the harm is really serious. However, examples of what would usually amount to really serious harm include:

  • Injury resulting in permanent disability, loss of sensory function or visible disfigurement.
  • Broken or displaced limbs or bones, including fractured skull, compound fractures, broken cheek bone, jaw, ribs etc.
  • Injuries which cause substantial loss of blood, usually necessitating a transfusion or result in lengthy treatment or incapacity.
  • Serious psychiatric injury. As with assault occasioning actual bodily harm, appropriate expert evidence may well be essential to prove the injury.

Unlawful wounding or Inflicting grievous bodily harm (Section 20 Offences Against the Person Act 1861)

This offence is committed when a person unlawfully and maliciously, either:

  • Wounds another person; or
  • Inflicts grievous bodily harm upon another person.

It is an offence that can be tried summarily at the Magistrates court or on indictment at the Crown Court. It carries a maximum penalty on indictment of five years’ imprisonment.

Wounding means the breaking of the continuity of the whole of the outer skin, or the inner skin within the cheek or lip. It does not include the rupturing of internal blood vessels.

This offence is capable of being racially or religiously aggravated under the provisions of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998.

Assault occasioning actual bodily harm, contrary to Section 47 Offences Against the Person Act 1861

The offence is committed when a person assaults another, thereby causing Actual Bodily Harm (ABH). Bodily harm has its ordinary meaning and includes any injury calculated to interfere with the health or comfort of the complainant. Such injury need not be permanent but must be more than transient and trifling.

It is an offence that can be tried at either the Magistrates Court or on indictment at the Crown Court. It carries a maximum penalty on indictment of five years’ imprisonment.

In determining whether the injuries are serious, relevant factors may include, for example, the fact that there has been significant medical intervention and/or permanent effects have resulted. Examples may include cases where there is the need for a number of stitches (but not the superficial application of steri-strips) or a hospital procedure under anaesthetic.

Common assault or ABH?

In law, the only factors that distinguish Common Assault from Assault Occasioning Actual Bodily Harm are the degree of injury that results and the sentence available to the sentencing court. But this latter factor is only relevant in the Crown Court. The magistrates’ court is only able to pass a maximum penalty for both offences, namely six months’ imprisonment.

Assault by beating / Common assault, contrary to Section 39 Criminal Justice Act 1988

An offence of assault by beating or common assault is committed when a person either assaults another person or commits a battery.

An assault is committed when a person intentionally or recklessly causes another to apprehend the immediate infliction of unlawful force.

A battery is committed when a person intentionally and recklessly applies unlawful force to another.

It is a summary offence, which carries a maximum penalty of six months’ imprisonment.


The following potential defences may commonly arise in assault cases, and it is important that these are properly considered in each case:


If a man or woman is under attack or believes that he is about to be attacked, then he is entitled to defend himself so long as he used no more than reasonable force.

This is a complex subject and will often be determined by the court or jury’s interpretation of the live evidence in the case. At SCM Law we will be able to offer our expert view based on the individual circumstances of your case.


On a charge of Common Assault, it is necessary for the prosecution to prove absence of consent. It is possible for a lack of consent to be inferred from evidence other than direct evidence from the complainant. Where actual or grievous bodily harm or a wound is caused, consent will be no defence.

If you are facing any allegation of assault, then it is essential that you take immediate legal advice from one of our expert Solicitors at SCM Law.

If you would like to discuss anything with us, please get in touch.