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Non-fatal offences against the person

Previous: Involuntary manslaughter

There can be said to be a ‘ladder’ of offences against the person, building up in seriousness. These are assault, battery, assault occasioning actual bodily harm, inflicting grievous bodily harm and wounding with intent. The fatal offences of manslaughter and murder are at the top of the ladder.


Section 39 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 provides that offenders convicted of assault or battery may face up to six months in prison and/or face a fine. Section 39 doesn’t define the offence itself. Lord Goff defined the offence in Collins v Wilcock [1984], although the offence’s history stretches back much further than 1984. He defined it as causing the apprehension (expectation) of immediate unlawful force. Blackstone said that an assault could be in the form of a threat, or an attempted battery where the defendant misses.

The offence was extended in R v Ireland [1998], where the House of Lords suggested that it might be possible to convict a defendant of assault from silent phone calls, also recognising that psychiatric harm comes within the definition of unlawful force in Lord Goff’s definition of assault, if the victim feared the possibility of immediate personal violence. The earlier case of R v Constanza [1997] made similar points to Ireland, allowing for a conviction of assault as long as the possibility of harm was present at any time not excluding the immediate future.

The mens rea of assault was defined by Lord Ackner in R v Savage [1992] as intent or recklessness as to the apprehension of immediate unlawful force.


Regardless of whether a defendant is arrested for assault or battery, they will be charged under section 39 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988. Collins v Wilcock [1984] once again defined the offence as where physical force is applied by the defendant to the victim without their consent. There is no minimum force requirement for battery, but if the force is acceptable in everyday life, it is consented to. Similarly, the CPS defines battery as any injury in their charging guidelines. R v Ireland [1998] confirmed that some physical force is required to be applied to the victim, however.

Battery need not be direct. In Haystead v DPP [2000], a punch which caused a mother to drop her baby constituted a battery to the baby, and in DPP v K [1990], putting hydrochloric acid in a hand dryer, burning its next user, was also classed as a battery. Finally, in Santa-Bermudez v DPP [2004], The R v Miller [1983] doctrine was used to explain a battery caused by omission.

The mens rea for battery is either subjective recklessness as to injury, or intent to injure. This was said in R v Venna [1975]. Recklessness requires an appreciation of the risk of injury, according to its current authority in R v G [2004].

Assault occasioning actual bodily harm

The offence of assault occasioning actual bodily harm comes from section 47 of the Offences Against the Person Act (OAPA) 1861, and can give rise to up to a 5 year prison sentence. Actual bodily harm (ABH), according to the CPS’ charging standards, is harm which is more than trifling, especially where medical attention or stitches are required (but not steri-strips). R v Ireland [1998] confirmed that actual bodily harm includes recognised psychiatric injuries, as ‘bodily’ includes the nervous system and the brain. Lord Steyn noted that it is necessary to construe statute in this way due to contemporary order xanax online usa factors (such as scientific development). R v Dhaliwal [2006] said that mere distress does not constitute actual bodily harm, however.

R v Roberts [1971] noted that the mens rea for this offence is the same as assault or battery only. However, if there is then a causal link between that assault or battery and the resulting actual bodily harm, the offence is completed. R v Savage [1992] approved this analysis. This does, however, make assault occasioning ABH a constructive crime, which breaches the correspondence principle. For the sake of an unpredictable result, a defendant could find themselves facing five years in prison as opposed to six months.

Inflicting grievous bodily harm

Inflicting grievous bodily harm (GBH), according to section 20 OAPA 1861, carries a maximum 5 year prison sentence and involves the unlawful and malicious wounding or infliction of GBH on another person, with or without a weapon. A wound implied that blood is spilled and GBH is defined a really serious injury in DPP v Smith [1961]. Really serious injury can again include serious psychiatric injury according to R v Ireland [1998]. Ireland also reversed previous authority in holding that the words ‘inflict’ and ’cause’ may be used interchangeably. Really serious harm, according to the CPS, will include permanent disabilities, broken bones, disfigurement, substantial losses of blood or serious psychiatric injury. R v Dica [2004] also includes the reckless transmission of sexually transmitted diseases within the meaning of infliction.

R v Savage [1992] is the leading authority on the mens rea of inflicting GBH; it requires merely an intent to inflict some harm, which need not be serious, confirming R v Mowatt [1968]. Subjective (R v Cunningham [1957]) recklessness as to some harm is also enough.

Causing grievous bodily harm with intent

This is the most serious non-fatal offence against the person. Under section 18 OAPA 1861, it carries with it a maximum sentence duration of life imprisonment, and requires bother GBH as above as its actus reus, but its mens rea must also be an intent or recklessness as to GBH. This could be an intent to cause really serious mental injury. R v Morrison [1989] confirmed that it is subjective recklessness which is required to secure a conviction under section 18. According to the CPS, the decision on whether to charge under section 20 or section 18 rests purely on evidence of intent.


There are three issues with the law relating to non-fatal offences against the person. The first is the breach of correspondence principle in section 47 and section 20 offences, where only an intent to cause some injury (i.e. a battery) is required, but the result could require a five-year prison sentence. The second is the age of the OAPA 1861. As the statute is so old, judges are required to stretch the statute to deal with modern attitudes and science – R v Ireland [1998] is a good illustration of this. Finally, the OAPA 1861 was compiled by plagiarising even older statutes, resulting in inconsistencies. Before R v Ireland [1998], several cases, including R v Wilson [1983] debated upon the meaning of ‘inflict’ under section 20, for example.

The Home Office sought to correct this in 1998, proposing that sections 18, 20 and 47 OAPA should become ‘intentionally causing serious injury’, ‘reckless serious injury’ and ‘intentional injury’ respectively. Though this proposal has not be adopted.

Next: Consent to harm

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