Criminal Law 101

The category of non-fatal offences against the person (NOATP) refers to the various kinds of attacks against others that do not result in death and that are not classed as dishonesty, child, sexual or motor offences.

From the least serious to the most serious, NOATP includes:

  • assault;
  • battery;
  • actual bodily harm;
  • malicious wounding or causing grievous bodily harm (GBH); and, finally
  • malicious wounding or causing grievous bodily harm (GBH) with intent.

Assault and battery are common law offences, meaning that they are not written in any laws passed by Parliament, but instead are a creature of judicial decisions in the past.

In English law, to assault is to cause someone to apprehend "the possibility of immediate and unlawful violence". There does not have to be any physical force or touching used. Mere words and gestures may suffice, such as someone raising their voice in an argument and clapping in a threatening manner, spitting, or raising a fist.

Battery is a form of assault and the first "physical" crime on the scale of physical contact. It involves the application of unlawful force to another person and includes everything from offensive contact to poking to pushing that does not cause bodily harm.

Assault and battery are the most common crimes of NOAPT and are collectively referred to as "common assault". Although English law conceptually separates them, they are often tried together and individuals can be charged with both assault and battery in relation to the same incident.

Assault occasioning actual bodily harm (ABH) is the next crime in order of severity and is the first statutory offence, being contrary to section 47 of the Offences Against the Person Act (OAPA) 1861. It carries a maximum sentence of 5 years.

ABH is basically a common assault which results in actual harm to the body of the victim, whether it is a bruise, a cut or any other harm.

The word 'harm' here is not restricted to injury - it includes any damage, invasion or interference with the victims bodily integrity and even mental injury. Similarly, body extends to anything in connection with the body. So cutting off someone's hair can amount to ABH even though there is no pain.

The next offence is unlawfully and maliciously wounding or inflicting grievous bodily harm (GBH). This is another statutory offence, being contrary to section 20 of the OAPA. It is known simply as section 20 GBH and carries a maximum sentence of 5 years.

The dividing line between ABH and s.20 GBH can be blurry. However, as the offence indicates, it can be met either by wounding, or causing some other serious injury. Wounding means a break in the continuity of all layers of skin to the extent that it allows blood to flow, and GBH refers to any other really serious harm.

The difficulty is defining ‘really serious harm’. Serious stab or gun wounds or broken limbs are clearly sufficient to meet the offence in the vast majority of cases. However, what about a single bullet wound that grazes the arm? Or a deep, single paper cut? Or a limb that is crushed but does not break? Or the transmission of a virus or sexually-transmitted-disease (STD)?

If there is a decided case of similar injury, then there is not likely to be a dispute on the classification of the injury, but if there is a dispute then it will be for the jury to decide on the specific facts of the case.

There are a number of factors juries must take into account, such as the characteristics of the victim, as a serious injury to one person may not be to another (e.g. for a child and adult). Additionally, several minor injuries may, taken together, be really serious harm. Likewise, a serious psychiatric injury may amount to really serious harm.

Finally, the most serious non-fatal offence is unlawfully and maliciously wounding or inflicting GBH with intent. This is another statutory offence, being contrary to section 18 of the OAPA. It is known simply as section 18 GBH and carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

The difference between section 18 and section 20 are the intents necessary for the offences.

Section 20 is a crime of basic intent, meaning that you do not need to intend or foresee GBH. If you intend some harm, or are reckless to some foreseeable harm, then under section 20 you will be guilty of any GBH that results from your actions. For example, intentionally punching someone, or recklessly throwing a hard object at someone, who then falls down and suffers permanent brain damage would be a section 20 offence.

On the other hand, section 18 requires specific intent. In other words, if you cause someone really serious harm, and that is what you intended to do, then this would be a section 18 offence. To continue with the same example, someone would be guilty of section 18 GBH if they intended to cause someone permanent brain damage, and they then caused it. The harsher punishment — life imprisonment — comes from the fact that they intended the injury.

However, another route to liability for section 18 GBH is if you resist or evade lawful arrest. So, if in resisting or evading lawful arrest, you cause GBH to another, then you may be found guilty of section 18 GBH, even though you did not intend that level of harm.

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