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Whether you are the victim of an assault or you have been accused by someone of assaulting them, you may be wondering what the time limits are for a prosecution for this offence. Perhaps you are concerned that you may face criminal charges for something that took place a very long time ago. The good news is that if it was a minor incident with no visible injury, which would be considered a common assault in the law of England and Wales, and it took place more than 6 months ago, you are unlikely to face a prosecution due to the time limit placed on summary only offences. This article explains the time limits for assault charges in England and Wales. It explains when you should go to the police if you are the victim of an offence and the law that imposes a statute bar on common assault charges. It also looks at the procedure that will take place when you press charges on someone for assault.
A statute of limitations is a term that is used in civil law and criminal law to prescribe the maximum period of time that can pass after an incident before parties involved in a dispute are blocked from initiating legal proceedings. In the criminal law of England and Wales, this applies to the time period within which the police and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) must initiate criminal proceedings by laying a charge.
There are certain crimes (known as ‘summary only offences’) that must be heard in the Magistrates’ Court. The police and CPS cannot institute criminal proceedings for summary only offences if more than 6 months have passed since the date of the offence. This is pursuant to Section 127 of the Magistrates Court Act 1980.
There is also a statute of limitations that applies to bringing a civil claim for assault. A civil claim is a type of court case brought by one private individual against another, often for compensation. For example, say you were punched by someone, who broke your nose. In addition to lodging a criminal complaint, you could bring a civil claim for compensation. For assault claims, the civil statutory time limit is 3 years. This means that the claim form must be served on the defendant within this time. This was established by the Limitation Act 1980.
You can go to the police at any time to report a crime against you. However, to have the best chance of the accused person being prosecuted, you should report the crime as soon as possible. In addition, common assault is a summary only offence. This means that the defendant must appear at court within 6 months of the date of the incident.
The 6 month time limit does not apply to other types of assault such as assault occasioning actual bodily harm (which is an either way offence), or grievous bodily harm (which is an indictable only offence). You may be asking yourself how common assault is defined, and how it differs from other, more serious, assault offences? Section 39 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988, where the offence of common assault is set out, does not provide us with any answers. Instead, what constitutes common assault has been determined by the courts over many years.
The CPS summarises common assault as follows:
‘An assault is any act (and not mere omission to act) by which a person intentionally or recklessly causes another to suffer or apprehend immediate unlawful violence. The term assault is often used to include a battery, which is committed by the intentional or reckless application of unlawful force to another person.’
Therefore a common assault could include an act that causes someone to believe force will be used against them, such as raising a fist to their face. It could also include assault by battery, where force is actually used. An example of this could be pushing someone, where the push does not cause any visible injury.
Where the assault causes bruising or broken skin, it may be serious enough to be prosecuted as actual bodily harm. Assaults causing broken bones or other serious injury will likely be considered grievous bodily harm. When deciding which offence to charge a defendant with, the CPS will also consider the psychological impact of the offence upon the victim and especially whether psychiatric harm has been caused by the offence. If you are the victim of an assault, you may not know which category the offence falls into. Therefore, it is worthwhile reporting it to the police even if the 6 month period has passed.
As explained above, criminal proceedings for summary only offences must be instituted within 6 months of the date of the incident. Summary only offences include common assault where the damage is worth less than £5000, low value shoplifting offences, certain motoring offences such as driving without insurance, and relatively minor offences such as graffitiing and littering. If you report a summary offence very close to the 6 month deadline, the police may not investigate it if there is not sufficient time to bring a prosecution within the time limit.
There is no time limit for bringing a prosecution for an either way or indictable only offence. This means that you can report a crime at any time, but for less serious offences that happened more than 6 months ago, the police may decide not to take any further action. In addition, it is more difficult for the police to investigate older crimes due to the erosion of evidence – for example, CCTV footage may no longer be available, and it is likely to be harder to track down witnesses. Your own witness account may also be less clear and detailed if a significant period of time has passed. The defence will be able to use the passage of time to attack the credibility of your evidence, (for example by suggesting that you have forgotten key details). It is always sensible, therefore, to report a crime as soon as possible.
If you are a victim of an assault, and you indicate to the police that you would be willing to give evidence at a criminal trial, this is a factor that the police will take into account when deciding whether to lay a charge. Once the criminal charge is laid, the defendant will have to appear before the Magistrates’ Court. As the victim, you will not have to attend this initial appearance.
If the charge that is laid is common assault, it is likely that the matter will remain within the Magistrates’ Court. If the defendant pleads not guilty, the case will be listed for a trial, where the prosecution will put forward their case and the defence will have the opportunity to put forward the defendant’s side of the story. The police will notify you of the date of the trial.
At the trial, the prosecution will usually be represented by the prosecutor and the defendant will be represented by their solicitor or barrister. Within the Magistrates’ Court, a trial is presided over by a judge or lay magistrates, not by a jury. As a witness, you will be called to give evidence. The prosecutor will take you through your evidence in chief. They will invite you to share your account of what happened, guiding you through it with a series of questions. These will probably be open questions, designed to help you tell your story. For example, ‘can you tell us where you were on the night of the 13 November?’
After the prosecution’s questioning has finished, the defence will then have an opportunity to examine you. The defence’s questioning is likely to be more challenging, as it will be designed to pick holes in the prosecution’s case, casting doubt on the strength of their evidence. The defence is more likely to ask you closed questions that elicit a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, for example, ‘do you accept that on the evening of 13 November, by the time you came to leave the pub, you were intoxicated?’
Once the evidence has concluded, the judge or magistrate will deliberate and reach their verdict. In order to convict the defendant, they must be persuaded that the evidence shows that beyond reasonable doubt the defendant is guilty of the offence.
Here at Stuart Miller Solicitors, our skilled criminal defence team will be with you throughout the whole criminal justice process. Whether you are appearing at the Magistrates’ Court for a minor offence or you are facing a multi-day trial at the Crown Court, we are here to help you through every stage. We provide consistent high quality representation to our clients. Contact us for a no obligation consultation today.
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