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Sentencing for Actual Bodily Harm offences

What is the sentence for Actual Bodily Harm offences in 2024?

Being under investigation for, charged with or arrested for Actual Bodily Harm can be very stressful. It’s understandable that you’ll be feeling anxious and stressed out about what may happen next if you or a loved one is charged with this crime.

grievous bodily harm

Assault occasioning actual bodily harm (ABH) is a crime that thousands of people find themselves convicted of every year in the UK. Whether occurring in situations of domestic violence, football hooliganism, bar brawls, or even just among friends play fighting, the offence is taken very seriously despite its prevalence. If you have found yourself charged with ABH, getting the right legal defence team behind you will make all the difference. In this article, we outline the offence of ABH, detail some of the most common ABH examples, and then we look at sentencing for ABH, describing the factors that will both increase and decrease the harshness of a sentence as well as answering some of the most common questions we get as solicitors.

What is ABH?

The current legal definition of ABH comes from a very old law dating back to Victorian times. It is a very vaguely defined offence, which is beneficial for law enforcement because numerous different types of assault can readily fall under it.

Section 47 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 provides:

‘Whosoever shall be convicted upon an indictment of any assault occasioning actual bodily harm shall be liable . . . to be kept in penal servitude.’

All this means in practice is that anyone who causes actual physical harm to another could face a prison sentence. In this context, bodily harm means harm caused to a person’s body, or that causes discomfort or harm to a person’s health, even if it is not serious or long term. Because this law is so vague, many different types of actions or inactions may fall within its scope, meaning it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what ABH is and what it isn’t. Some examples can, however, be drawn.

Examples of ABH include:

  • Pushing someone at a bar, causing them to trip on a chair and bruise their leg
  • Punching someone in the face, dislocating their nose
  • Hitting someone with a blunt object, causing bruising and prolonged discomfort in the affected limb
  • Biting someone, causing bruising but not breaking the skin
  • Light scratches to the skin

Is a black eye ABH?

Yes, a black eye may constitute ABH because bruises generally satisfy the requirements for ABH.

Is a broken nose ABH?

A broken nose may count as ABH or GBH, depending on the circumstances and the severity of the nasal injury. For minor breaks that do not break the skin or cause other damage, ABH may be charged, but for anything that breaks the skin or causes other injuries (for example, damages eyes), it is likely to be charged as the more serious GBH.

Is punching someone GBH?

If a punch causes the victim to sustain any level of actual physical or bodily harm, the act of punching them and causing that harm may be charged as ABH. If the punch is weak and merely pushes or moves someone out of the way without causing them physical harm, it is likely the charge will not amount to ABH.

Is ABH a basic intent crime?

Yes, ABH is a basic intent crime. A basic intent crime is one where the prosecution only has to prove that you either had the intent to commit the crime, or that you were reckless as to whether you committed the crime – there is no requirement that you actually intended a specific or particular thing to happen as a result.

Is ABH a violent offence?

Undoubtedly, ABH is a violent offence. While the harm caused with ABH is not as serious as with some other offences, it is definitely still considered violent to cause the level of harm that is typically associated with ABH.

What’s worse, GBH or ABH?

GBH – grievous bodily harm – is generally considered to be worse than ABH. Both are still violent crimes and both are still taken very seriously by the courts, but GBH typically involves harm that is much more severe (hence the ‘grievous’ in its name).

Because of this, GBH is sentenced much more harshly than ABH, with the maximum sentence for GBH without intent being 5 years’ custody, for GBH with racially aggravated intent being 7 years’ custody, and the maximum sentence for GBH with intent to cause GBH being a life sentence.

What happens if you are charged with ABH?

If you are charged with ABH, just like when you are charged with any crime, you will receive a charge sheet. This is a piece of paper that details the charges you are facing, but it will not give any details of the evidence the police hold against you.

Depending on the severity of the ABH, the police will either release you from custody on bail or they will make you stay in custody until your court hearing. In the first instance, your case will be heard at the Magistrates’ Court, and the magistrate will then decide whether to send your case to the Crown Court for trial and sentencing.

What court is ABH heard in?

ABH is what is known as an ‘either way’ offence, which means that in less serious cases it will be tried in the Magistrates’ Court and in more serious cases it will be tried in the Crown Court. Note that criminal cases nearly always start in the Magistrates’ Court, regardless of what you have been charged with, and are then ‘sent up’ to the Crown Court for trial and sentencing if they are serious enough.

What is the sentence for ABH?

The sentencing guidelines for assault in general are complicated, and this complication and complexity filters down to assault occasioning actual bodily harm, i.e. ABH. Some general rules can be determined, however.

The sentence you will receive if you are convicted of ABH varies depending on whether your case is in the Magistrates’ Court (therefore is considered less serious) or the Crown Court (considered more serious).

What is the sentence for ABH in the Magistrates’ Court?

The maximum sentence that a magistrate can give is 6 months’ custody, a fine, or an unpaid work order (community service). If your case is heard in the Magistrates’ Court but the magistrate decides that their permitted range of punishments is not sufficient, they may send your case to the Crown Court for sentencing.

What is the sentence for ABH in the Crown Court?

Your case being heard and sentenced in the Crown Court opens you up to the maximum range of punishments for the crime of ABH.

Under s 47 OAPA, the maximum sentence for ABH is 5 years’ imprisonment. The minimum punishment is a fine. A combination of a fine and a prison sentence is possible.

How are sentences for ABH decided?

As with other crimes, the judge will look at a range of factors to determine if any circumstances require your punishment to be made harsher (aggravating factors) or lighter (mitigating factors).

Aggravating factors include:

  • Repeat offending
  • Planning or premeditation
  • Use of a weapon or strangulation/asphyxiation
  • Sustained or prolonged assault

Mitigating factors include:

  • First offence
  • Showing remorse
  • Having made an apology
  • Spur of the moment action
  • Involuntary intoxication (from a drink being spiked or prescription medication)

Will ABH show on DBS?

Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks, (formerly known as Criminal Records Bureau, or CRB, checks) allow prospective employers and other organisations to see your criminal history, including cautions.

As for whether ABH shows up on the record, the answer depends on how much time has passed since the conviction (thus whether the offence has been ‘filtered’) and what level of disclosure the organisation has requested (Basic, Standard, or Enhanced).

Cautions or convictions for ABH will remain on a DBS check unfiltered for 5.5 years if the crime was committed while the offender was under 18, and 11 years for crimes committed by adults.

Any assault committed against a child, and any assault that is racially or religiously motivated, will always be shown on a Standard or Enhanced DBS check. Likewise, certain assaults committed with certain other intentions (e.g. to commit burglary) will always show on a Standard or Enhanced check. To see the full list of crimes that always show on these checks, click here.

How long does an ABH conviction stay on record?

An ABH conviction, like any other conviction, will stay on the Police National Computer until you are 100 years old. Only after that date is information on a person deleted from the PNC.

As for your criminal record as it would be shown to prospective employers or any other organisation permitted to request it, the case may be different.

Where to get more help?

If you have been charged with ABH, get a criminal defence solicitor on your side as soon as possible. Many cases of ABH arise from silly circumstances, and a good solicitor might be able to get those charges dropped before they even reach court. For a free and non-judgemental consultation, get in touch with our team today.


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