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Criminal Defences

A Guide to Grievous Bodily Harm (GBH) Defences

Learn more about defences that can be used for the offence of Grievous Bodily Harm (GBH).

grievous bodily harm

Have you been charged with grievous bodily harm? If so, you are probably feeling worried and anxious. Perhaps you are replaying the events that have taken place and wondering what will happen at your upcoming trial. This article provides an overview of the offence of grievous bodily harm and looks at the kind of evidence that is likely to come up in your case. After outlining the maximum sentence you could receive for this offence, we then turn to the defences that you may be able to rely upon to reduce your sentence or avoid conviction altogether.

An overview of the offence of grievous bodily harm

Grievous bodily harm (GBH) is basically ‘really serious bodily harm’. It includes, among other things, harm caused through violence such as through punching or kicking. It also includes wounding, for example by cutting or stabbing. The offence is set out at Section 20 of the Offences against the Person Act 1861. It is the most serious type of assault charge which can be laid against a person in relation to physical harm. Note that the offence can be committed with or without a weapon.

What distinguishes GBH from the less serious charges of actual bodily harm and common assault is the level of harm done to the victim. Usually, the need for significant or sustained medical treatment by the victim will lead to a charge of GBH. The level of harm will be assessed with reference to the particular victim. For example, if the victim was an elderly or vulnerable, this will be taken into account and will increase the seriousness of the offence.

There is also a more serious offence of grievous bodily harm with intent. You could be convicted of this offence if the jury believes that at the time of committing the offence, you intended to inflict that very serious level of harm that was caused. This offence also includes circumstances where you have intentionally seriously injured or wounded someone in an attempt to avoid arrest.

Racially or religiously aggravated GBH is another highly serious form of this offence. This offence is said to occur where the defendant was motivated in committing the alleged crime by racial or religious hostility.

What kind of evidence is used in grievous bodily harm cases?

The prosecution will need to prove that you committed the act that led to the harm. For this purpose, they are likely to gather CCTV evidence and witness testimonies of anyone who was present. If you have been charged with GBH with intent, the prosecution will also need to show that you intended to cause serious harm. For this charge especially, your evidence in respect of what happened is likely to form an important part of your defence. Not everyone should give their account, however, so you should consult a solicitor who will advise you on your options in this respect.

The prosecution will also need to prove that the harm was of a ‘serious’ nature. To do this, they are likely to refer to the medical records of the victim and may instruct a medico-legal expert to comment on the harm that was caused to the victim. For example, the expert may seek to show that the injuries caused by the GBH worsened existing medical conditions that the victim suffers from, or that they were particularly bad because of a pre-existing condition (that you may or may not have known about).

What is the maximum sentence for grievous bodily harm?

The maximum sentence for GBH is 5 years imprisonment. You will not necessarily receive a custodial sentence, however. For less serious offences, you may receive a community order. For religiously or racially motivated GBH, the maximum sentence is 7 years imprisonment. More information on sentencing for GBH can be found here.

The maximum sentence for GBH with intent (the more serious offence) is life imprisonment. If you are convicted of this offence you will receive a custodial sentence of between 2 and 16 years. The court will consider your culpability (blameworthiness) and the harm caused to the victim when deciding on the length of your sentence. It will also consider other factors including whether you have previous convictions or have previously been violent towards the same victim. Detailed GBH with intent sentencing guidelines can be found here.

What are the applicable grievous bodily harm defences? 

  • Consent: In some rare circumstances, you may be able to defend a charge of GBH on the grounds that the victim consented to the activity. This has been used by defendants charged in relation to harm caused by sadomasochistic sexual activities. However, there is legal debate in relation to whether consent should be allowed to be a defence in these circumstances. The courts have suggested that consent is not an excuse to causing someone really serious harm. If you’re wondering whether your case fits into this category, consult a solicitor for more information.
  • Accident: If you have been charged with GBH with intent, you may be able to rely on this defence to show that you did not mean to cause serious harm, and that instead the serious harm took place as a result of an accident. This could lead to you being convicted of a lesser charge.
  • Lawful Sport: If the injury took place during a lawful sporting activity, such as a football or boxing match, you may be able to rely upon this defence. It does not apply if you maliciously intended to cause the injury. If the court finds that you acted aggressively and dangerously in a way that went beyond the usual risks of the sport, the defence may not be successful.
General Defences

In some circumstances, you may be able to rely upon what is called a ‘general defence’ to GBH. General defences relate to the person accused rather than the crime itself. General defences include:

  • Self-defence: The law says that if you are attacked, you may use the force that is reasonably necessary to defend yourself. You may also use reasonable force to defend another person or property. For example, if you were attacked, and you retaliated to protect yourself or someone else, you may be able to rely on this defence. The court will look at whether the force you used was proportionate to the threat you were defending yourself or another against.
  • Duress: This is where you were forced by a person to commit an offence. The court will consider whether you reasonably feared death or serious injury if you did not commit the act, and whether a reasonable person in your situation would have shared those fears and responded in the same way.
  • Necessity: Similar to duress, this is where you were forced by a set of circumstances to commit an offence. You will need to show that you reasonably believed that committing the crime was necessary in order to prevent harm or serious injury to yourself or another.
  • Automatism: If you were not aware of your actions when committing the offence, in some rare circumstances, you may be able to rely upon the defence of automatism. Generally, if you were under the voluntary influence of alcohol or illicit drugs you will not be able to rely on this defence.
  • Insanity: If the court finds that due to mental illness, you lacked the ability to reason such that you did not know that the act that you were doing was against the law, you may be acquitted on the grounds of insanity.
  • Intoxication: The courts are reluctant to accept voluntary intoxication, i.e. choosing to consume drugs and alcohol, as an excuse for criminal behaviour. However, if you have been charged with GBH with intent, you may be able to rely upon the fact that you were intoxicated to show that you did not have the necessary mental intention to commit the offence. This could lead to you being convicted of a lesser offence.
  • Mistake: This defence could apply if you were mistaken as to certain factual circumstances and would not have committed the offence is you had known otherwise. The court will consider whether your belief was honest but mistaken, and if it was reasonable in the circumstances. You cannot rely on your mistaken understanding of the law as a complete defence, though this could still lead to you receiving a lesser sentence.
  • Use of force in prevention of crime: You are permitted to use reasonable force to prevent a crime from taking place or in order to assist in a lawful arrest. For example, if you injured a person in an attempt to prevent them from mugging someone else.

Defences are a complex area of the law and you should consult a solicitor for advice on the specific facts of your case if you intend to rely on one at trial.

What will a successful defence achieve?

A successful defence may lead to you being acquitted or convicted of a lesser charge, such as actual bodily harm or common assault. Whether you have a viable defence depends on the particular facts of your case, so consult a solicitor for specialist advice.

How can I get help with grievous bodily harm offences?

 If you or a loved one has been accused of grievous bodily harm, Stuart Miller Solicitors is here to help. Our expert and experienced team will provide you with robust advice on your case and realistic guidance on the options that are available to you. Contact us today to arrange a friendly no obligation consultation.

(This page was last updated on November 22, 2023.)


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