There are various types of assault described by law in England and Wales:

  • 1. Common assault;
  • 2. Assault on a police officer;
  • 3. Assault on an emergency worker;
  • 4. ABH; and
  • 5. GBH, of which there are two flavours.

All five types of assault have the same underpinning in law, namely the application by one person of unlawful force to another person. The differences arise because of the victim, i.e. a police officer or emergency worker, and as a result of the injuries caused.

One thing to note though is that our modern offence of assault encompasses two old offences of battery and assault – the difference was that battery required some physical contact while assault merely required the victim to fear immediate unlawful violence. Because of that a person charged today will be accused of assault but the charge may specify that it is “by beating” to indicate the actual use of physical contact. In theory, all assaults can be committed by simply causing another person to fear violence but where injury is required that becomes much harder to prove.

Most types of assault can be racially or religiously aggravated, which causes a severe increase in sentence.

Common Assault

This is the least serious form of assault it will cover anything from making somebody believe you are going to hit them right up to inflicting a severe beating where no injury is caused, or at least where no injury can be proven by the prosecution.

whether they would be assaulted, or they would fear an assault. Recklessness here means foreseeing the possibility that the victim would be placed in fear or would actually suffer immediate unlawful violence and then taking that risk anyway.

The maximum sentence for a single offence is 6 months imprisonment, although note that where a magistrates’ court sentences two offences together they can impose a maximum sentence of 6 months on each to run consecutively meaning a whole year in prison.

Where an offence is racially or religiously aggravated the maximum sentence is 2 years imprisonment.

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Assault On A Police Officer

This is effectively a common assault is committed on a police officer who is acting in the execution of his or her duty.

The maximum sentence is 6 months imprisonment and the offence cannot be racially or religiously aggravated, although the sentences imposed are routinely higher than for a plain common assault. Thus, a common assault that would attract a community order will attract a 12 week prison sentence if committed upon a police officer.

As well as the defences we’ll talk about later, it can be effective to argue that the officer was not acting in the execution of his duty. This will apply where the officer has exceeded his authority in some way, for example by performing an unlawful arrest. It is not necessary for you to know that the person is a police officer; however, a mistaken belief that the person was not a police officer may be a defence.

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Assault On An Emergency Worker

This is a common assault committed on an emergency worker, which will include people like fire fighters, police officers and paramedics.

The offence carries up to one-year imprisonment upon conviction in the Crown Court. Because of that, you should not be surprised to see an assault on a police officer charged as an assault on an emergency worker as they are covered by both offences but the sentence for this offence is harsher.

As with assault on a police officer, it will be a defence to show that the emergency worker was not exercising their function as an emergency worker.

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Assault Occasioning Actual Bodily Harm (ABH)

This is a common assault where the victim suffers an injury that is “calculated to interfere with the health of comfort of the victim, but it must be more than merely transient or trifling.”

ABH can be committed both by causing physical and psychological injury.

The sentence is one of five years imprisonment for the basic offence of up to seven years where the offence is racially or religiously aggravated.

Where there is doubt about the injury, it is often possible to persuade a prosecutor to accept a guilty plea to common assault.

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Assault Occasioning Grievous Bodily Harm (GBH)

GBH means “really serious bodily harm”, although it is not necessary for the harm to be permanent or dangerous nor do the prosecution have to show that the harm will have lasting consequences for the victim.

A GBH can also be committed by wounding a person, which often, but not always, means using a weapon such as a knife or gun to break the continuity of the skin. Most such wounds will be serious, but it is possible to commit this offence with a very minor wound. In some very old cases from 1835 and 1849, the courts said that wounding included causing bleeding from the mouth and damaging the lining of the urethra causing blood to discharge.

GBH comes in two flavours, which depend not upon the injury but upon the intention of the assailant.

Section 20

A GBH under section 20 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 means that grievous bodily harm or a wound has been inflicted without the intention to cause that injury. Therefore, we are talking about injury that is inflicted recklessly, i.e. where you foresee the risk of an injury being inflicted and take the risk anyway.

This offence can be racially or religiously aggravated.

The maximum sentence is five years imprisonment, rising to seven years where the offence is racially or religiously aggravated.

Section 18

A section 18 GBH will occur where a person commits grievous bodily harm, or inflicts a wound, with the intention of doing some grievous bodily harm or where the GBH is inflicted to prevent the lawful arrest or detention of themselves or another person.

The offence carries a sentence of life imprisonment. The starting point for serious offence is 12 years imprisonment and four years imprisonment for the least serious offences.

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