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Understanding different types of assault charges in English Law

types assault charge

While government statistics reveal that violent crime in the UK is decreasing, Assault remains one of the most common Criminal Offences in England.

Owing to the complexity of the offence, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly how many Assault charges and convictions are issued every year, but the figure is widely understood to be in the hundreds of thousands. Most Assault incidents occur in and around London.

If you are one such person who has been charged with Assault, having reliable information about the various types of assault is a good first step in understanding what comes next. Read on to discover how assault charges are classified, and how those classifications affect the way in which your case might be treated and what the consequences could be.

What is assault?

Under English law, there are three main types of Assault: Common Assault, Actual Bodily Harm (ABH) and Wounding / Grievous Bodily Harm (GBH).

Several offences fall under each of these main types of Assault, and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) will decide what offence to charge a person with depending on many factors, including the parties involved, the nature of the alleged Assault, the location of the Assault, and what evidence they have.

It is important to understand that Assault offences entail a broad range of actions – from threatening words to serious bodily injuries – which vary considerably in severity. Much will depend on what is alleged to have occurred and what evidence can be adduced to support the allegation.

Special characteristics of the alleged perpetrator and victim are also taken into account. Indeed, what counts as Assault against one person may not count as Assault against another. For someone facing an Assault charge, this can make the criminal charging and trial processes very confusing.

For the most part, Assault Offences are contained in the Criminal Justice Act of 1988 and the Offences Against the Person Act of 1861, but other statutes may apply to your case if there are special circumstances (such as if your case involves an Assault against a police officer). 

1. Common assault

Common Assault is committed when ‘a person intentionally or recklessly causes another to apprehend the immediate infliction of unlawful force.’ There are two parts to this offence, firstly ‘causing another to apprehend the immediate infliction of unlawful force’ and secondly, causing that apprehension ‘intentionally or recklessly’.

Common Assault is a broad and complex charge, and because there are so many different actions that fall under ‘Assault’, it is often easier to understand the offence through examples.

In plain language, you can be found guilty of Common Assault if you hurt another person or if you make that person think that they might be about to suffer harm. The exact charge you get will depend on the severity of that harm.

To be charged with Common Assault generally, it is important to understand that you don’t even have to be physically violent – even shaking your fist as someone or shouting threatening words can be considered a form of Assault if the other person believes that they are about to be harmed by you.

Similarly, you can be charged with Common Assault for something seemingly ‘harmless’. Spitting on someone is a good example of this: being spat on does not really harm anyone in the long-run, but it still counts as Common Assault.

Common Assault offences cover both intentional and reckless (sometimes construed as ‘accidental’) actions. This means that you can be charged with Common Assault both if you meant to hurt someone (or cause them to think they were going to be hurt) and if you didn’t mean to. For example, if you spoke harshly to someone out of anger, you may not have meant to cause them harm but if in speaking that way the other person thought that you were going to attack them, you can be found guilty of Common Assault.

If violence is used in the Common Assault, the charge is more serious and is likely to be considered ‘battery’, or ‘Assault by Beating’. This offence often involves physical fighting or attacks, but what complicates matters if the fact that under English law, beating doesn’t just mean physically attacking someone to the point of injury. If you push, grab, or spit at someone; this, too, is considered Assault by Beating. Because of this, even a minor injury can be viewed as Common Assault.

More violent forms of Assault – ABH and GBH – are considered later in this article. For now, it is useful to note that circumstances involving police officers may give rise to special types of Assault charges, which are treated more seriously.

2. Assault with intent to resist arrest

If you are in the process of being arrested, and you resist, even with words or pushing back; you can be charged with Assault with Intent to Resist Arrest. This is a serious offence, as if your words or actions are committed with the intent of stopping the arrest, you can receive a sentence of up to two years imprisonment.

Importantly, these charges apply even if you aren’t the person being arrested. In other words, if you try to stop another person’s arrest, you can be charged.

Similarly, the victim of the Assault need not actually be a police officer. If a private citizen is making a citizen’s arrest and you use words or actions to interrupt that arrest, you could be charged with assault.

3. Assault on a police constable in the execution of his or her duty

A more serious Assault is one that takes place against a police officer in the process of making an arrest, or against someone helping that officer to make the arrest. This includes an off-duty police officer who may be conducting an arrest if they happen to be on the scene of a crime.

These cases are usually heard in the Magistrates’ Court but may be heard in the Crown Courts if they are particularly violent or involve aggravating factors, such as racist remarks.

While this charge covers many Assaults against police officers, it doesn’t cover all of them. If your actions lead to a more serious injury to the officer or the person helping them, then you might be charged with a more serious offence, such as ABH or GBH.

4. Actual bodily harm

Actual Bodily Harm (ABH) involves the causing of physical harm to the victim. The severity of the harm may vary, but for ABH to be an appropriate charge, the sentencing guidelines recommend that the harm need not be ‘serious or permanent but must be more than trifling or transient’. Some mental or psychiatric harm may be charged as ABH, but that harm must be more than just causing fear or anxiety.

If charged with ABH, the case may be heard in either the Magistrates’ or the Crown Court, and if convicted, the maximum sentence can be five years’ imprisonment.

5. Grievous bodily harm and/or wounding

GBH is the most serious of the Assault charges. GBH involves two offences: ‘Unlawful Wounding or inflicting Grievous Bodily Harm’ and ‘causing Grievous Bodily Harm with Intent to do Grievous Bodily Harm / Wounding with Intent to do Grievous Bodily Harm.’

The first type of GBH tends to be reckless or unplanned, such as a bar fight that gets drastically out of hand; whereas the second tends to involve intention to cause harm, such as a deliberate attack on a person out of revenge.

A. Unlawful wounding or inflicting grievous bodily harm

GBH is charged where an Assault involves serious physical harm, but that harm need not be permanent or particularly dangerous. What is key in ‘unlawful wounding’ is that the skin is broken. In practice, this includes both situations that rupture the skin – such as a bloody lip from a punch to the face – or breaking of the inner skin – such as a bruise that is caused by being kicked.

GBH may also be charged where the victim suffers psychiatric injury or where they are knowingly given an infection, such as a sexually transmitted disease. In causing this harm, the perpetrator must have been either deliberate or reckless.

In practice, the CPS is not likely to charge Unlawful Wounding where the injuries are relatively minor. Instead, the alleged perpetrator would be charged with Common Assault.

Sentencing for Unlawful Wounding varies significantly, but the maximum term of imprisonment is five years. The case may be heard either at the Magistrates’ or Crown Court.

B. Causing Grievous Bodily Harm with Intent to do Grievous Bodily Harm / Wounding with Intent to do Grievous Bodily Harm

GBH with intent is the most serious form of Assault charges in the UK and involves a perpetrator that intended to cause serious bodily harm to the victim. This offence may be committed four different ways:

  1. wounding with intent to do Grievous Bodily Harm;
  2. causing Grievous Bodily Harm with intent to do so;
  3. maliciously wounding with intent to resist or prevent the lawful apprehension etc. of any person; or
  4. maliciously causing Grievous Bodily Harm with intent to resist or prevent lawful apprehension etc. of any person.

Any of these offences is very serious and carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. These cases are always heard in the Crown Court.

What to do if you have been charged with assault

If you have been charged with Assault, whether Common Assault or a form of aggravated assault like ABH or GBH, you should contact a trusted legal professional to help you navigate the criminal process. A Solicitor will listen to your account of the events and help you understand what the prosecution might do during any hearings or a trial, as well as advise you on what consequences you might face.

A Solicitor will also move quickly to challenge any illegal behaviours the police may have been involved in, such as conducting a illegal search of premises, collecting evidence illegally or even interviewing you or asking you questions illegally.

Most importantly, a Solicitor will start to collect evidence to help your case, before the evidence is no longer available. A good example is CCTV evidence, which can be erased from the hard drives automatically after the memory is full within 14 or 21 or 28 days.

Failing to act quickly means that you reduce your chances of defending yourself in the best way possible and only with a Solicitors expert advice, experience and knowledge can you maximise your chances.

More information

For compassionate and professional advice on your case, contact Stuart Miller Solicitors today for a no-obligation consultation.


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