GBH, ABH and other Assaults

GBH (Grievous Bodily Harm)

is a serious offence. Clients accused of GBH will often be refused bail, and can have their lives and those of their families turned upside down by the threat of a trial and the possibility of a long prison sentence.


is an offence for which a prison sentence is also possible, but less likely to be given.

Common Assault

rarely involves a prison sentence, but is still considered an offence of violence, and so a criminal conviction for it is to be avoided if possible.

Section 39 Assault – Common Assault

or sometimes called assault by beating(even though no beating maybe involved).

This offence is committed when someone either applies unlawful force on another person (for example by hitting or slapping), or makes them afraid that immediate force will be used against them (for example by waving a hand or fist closely at another person). There need not be any marks or injury. Any injury or bruising would usually result in the charge being raised to one of ABH. A first offence usually means a fine or possibly a community penalty, but not usually prison, unless there are features which make the incident more serious, such as other offences, or any allegations of racist behaviour or motivation.

Section 47 Assault – Actual Bodily Harm (ABH)

This is assault resulting in harm such as scratches, bruises etc. The only intention required is to want to assault the victim, which means to exert unlawful force. So, for example, if a defendant has attempted to throw beer on another person, but the glass slips and hits the person, then even though there has been no intention to commit ABH, because the intention to throw beer on the victim is enough to make out the offence.

The maximum sentence for ABH is 5 years, and this offence can be dealt with in the Magistrates Court. In reality, defendants will rarely receive sentences anywhere near 5 years for this offence unless the attack, and defendants with no previous convictions will often not receive prison sentences.

GBH (Grievous Bodily Harm – Section 18 and Section 20 Assault).

To be convicted of this offence, the defendant must be proved to have committed really serious harm, or wounded another person (for example by stabbing with a knife). However, the damage must be intended. If the intention of the defendant was to only cause some pain or harm, but not “really serious harm”, then the offence committed is Section 20 Assault – a less serious version of GBH, also called “wounding without intent”. So a defendant who has kicked somebody else and broken their ribs, could be guilty of Section 20 Assault if they did not specifically want to cause that damage, but Section 18 Assault if they actually intended that damage.

Whether an offence is Section 18 or Section 20 is important when it comes to sentence. Section 20 Assault has a maximum sentence of 5 years imprisonment, and can even be dealt with in the Magistrates Court, although it is quite rare that the magistrates will prevent it from being transferred to the Crown Court. Section 18 Assault, on the other hand, can only ever be dealt with in the Crown Court, and can result in a maximum sentence of life imprisonment, although sentences of more than 10 years for Section 18 are rare.

Defences to Offences of Violence

There are certain defences which are often applicable to offences of violence, depending on the facts of the case.

Strategy in Assault Cases

In assault cases, issues which often arise include the following:
• Forensics / medical evidence – are any injuries consistent with the allegations or do they go against them?
• Issues of mistaken identity
• Is self-defence available to the defendant