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Common Assault

The criminal offences of common assault, actual bodily harm (ABH) and grievous bodily harm (GBH) are covered by the Criminal Justice Act 1988 and the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. In most instances, and excepting the more serious charge of GBH, if the offender is being charged for the first time for assault or ABH a prison sentence is unlikely – though there are no guarantees.


Our criminal law experts have experience with defending those who are facing criminal charges for assault, ABH or GBH and we can help. For more detailed information about common assault, read our in-depth blog.

What is common assault?

When a person either assaults someone or commits battery they will be charged with a criminal offence under Section 39 of the Criminal Justice Act. The offences are defined as follows:

  • battery is classified as the application of unlawful force (anything from a simple slap or shove)
  • assault occurs when a person makes another fear that immediate force will be used against them; no actual force needs to be applied, just a threatening gesture or demeanour (for example throat slitting gesture or shaking a fist)

Will there be a prison sentence?

Common assault has a maximum penalty of six months imprisonment and / or a fine. If the offender is being charged for the first time a custodial sentence is unlikely and a fine is the usual punishment. However, if the offender has previous conviction or are shown to have had a particular motivation for the attack (for example a racially motivated attack) this could result in a prison sentence.

What is actual bodily harm (ABH)?

The assault or battery needs to cause harm to the person’s body in order to be classed as actual bodily harm. ABH is a criminal offence covered under Section 47 of the Offences Against the Person Act. The harm does not need to be serious but does need to be more significant than a push or shove – harm consisting of bruises, scratches or bite marks would be sufficient enough to be classed as ABH.

The important factor when dealing with ABH is more intention to use unlawful force – the offender only needs to intend to apply unlawful force, not intend to cause injury. If a push results in someone banging their head it is ABH because of the intention was to use unlawful force rather than to cause injury.

Will there be a prison sentence?

Just as with common assault, if the offender is being charged for the first time it is unlikely they will receive a prison sentence – usually they are fined. However, ABH does carry a maximum sentence of five years and previous convictions or attacks with particular motivations (race attacks) could lead to a custodial sentence.

What is grievous bodily harm (GBH)?

In order for the offence of grievous bodily harm to have occurred there needs to be ‘really serious harm’ done. This is a criminal offence covered under Sections 18 and 20 of the Offences Against the Person Act. Perhaps the most obvious example would be someone stabbing another person.

Again, intention plays a key part in determining the seriousness of the offence and the charge. If the intent was to cause some harm or pain but not to inflict ‘really serious harm’ then this would be called ‘wounding without intent’ and be covered under Section 20. If the intention was to inflict ‘really serious harm’ then this would be covered under Section 18 – the more serious offence of GBH.

For example, Person A head butts Person B and breaks their nose. If they didn’t intend to break the victim’s nose then it’s a Section 20 offence. If Person A knew what they were doing (trained martial artist perhaps) and intended to break the victim’s nose then it would be a Section 18 offence.

Will there be a prison sentence?

Wounding without intent carries a maximum five year sentence whilst GBH could result in a life sentence – though sentences of more than 10 years for GBH are extremely rare.

Grievous bodily harm sentencing does not offer the option of just a fine, even for first time offences. Due to the violent nature of the crime, it is unlikely that bail will be offered for GBH offences.

How can AFG LAW help me if I am charged with an assault offence?

AFG LAW have a team of experienced criminal law experts who can help you if you have been accused of committing assault. Criminal law can sometimes be complex and difficult to fully understand – we can help you make sense of the charges against you, evaluate the evidence and advise how to proceed.

We can help you prepare your defence, represent you at trial and even help you with your appeal if it should be necessary. Should you be convicted, we can identify any appropriate mitigating factors or circumstances which may help to reduce your sentence or penalty.

Our criminal law solicitors can help you with your case and provide expert legal advice and representation throughout. If you’d like more information on common assault, ABH or GBH please email or ring 01204 377 600 – we’ll explain how AFG LAW’s criminal law specialists can help.

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