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Sentencing Council launches new definitive guideline for assault offences.

16 March 2011

Today, the Sentencing Council is publishing a new guideline for judges and magistrates.

It aims to ensure a consistent and proportionate approach to sentencing, with convicted offenders receiving a sentence that reflects both the harm they have caused to their victim and their culpability.

The new guideline, which has been issued following a 12-week public consultation, will come into effect on 13 June.  Although primarily aimed at criminal justice professionals, the guideline is specifically designed to be accessible and clear both to victims and to the public.

The guideline covers a wide range of offences of violence, from causing grievous bodily harm with intent to common assault. The intention of the guideline is that sentences for the whole range of assault offences should be proportionate to each other, so that offenders who cause serious harm are punished with substantial prison sentences, but that courts make more use of community sentences for offenders who cause no or very minor injury.

The guideline addresses concerns some judges have expressed about the previous guideline including the view that undue emphasis that has been placed on premeditation in assaults whereas experience reveals that many offences of this type are spontaneous or involve minimum premeditation, such as a fight outside a pub at closing time. By focusing on the fundamental principles of the harm to the victim and the culpability of the offender and reducing the emphasis on premeditation, the new guideline will be more easily applicable to the wide variety of assault cases coming before the courts.

The new format of the guideline also makes it easier for sentencers to identify the most important factors increasing the seriousness of an offence. This includes offences committed against those working in the public sector or providing a service to the public. The broad wording would encompass both those providing vital services to the public, such as emergency services personnel, but also those working, for example, as pub staff and shop workers.

A consultation response document and a resource assessment have been published alongside the guideline. The resource assessment indicates that there is likely to be an increase in sentence lengths for the most serious cases of assault, along with a decrease in the use of custody for offences at the other end of the spectrum where very little, if any, physical harm is caused.  These offences include common assault, assaulting a police constable and assault with intent to resist arrest but it must be emphasised that, in every case where even modest injury resulted, the appropriate offence is assault occasioning actual bodily harm, the seriousness of which would be increased if it involved a police officer.

The Council sought views on the draft guideline from as wide an audience as possible.  Separate consultation documents were prepared for criminal justice professionals and for the public, and an online questionnaire was also devised, to increase the accessibility of the consultation. The Sentencing Council received nearly 400 responses from judges, magistrates, lawyers, the police, representative bodies and members of the public, and these contributions helped shape the final guideline.

Chairman of the Sentencing Council, Lord Justice Leveson, said:

“This guideline will increase consistency in sentencing and help ensure offenders receive sentences that accurately reflect the harm they have caused their victim and their culpability. Where serious injuries are inflicted, offenders can rightly expect to go to jail, but where very minor or no injuries are caused, sentencers need to apply a proportionate response.

“We held a public consultation, including an online consultation, so that any member of the public – including victims and witnesses – could take part as well as legal professionals.

“We are very grateful to everyone who responded to the consultation and have improved some of the detail of the guideline in response to comments received.  The high level and quality of that response has provided insight into a number of issues and, as a result, we have a definitive assault guideline which we believe will be more useful and more effective.”

Notes to editors

1. The new definitive guideline can be found here:

2. The consultation response document can be found here, along with a final resource assessment document.

3. The consultation was open from 13 October 2010 to 5 January 2011. The total number of responses was 394, consisting of 171 written responses and 223 responses to the online survey.

4. The guideline covers the following offences:

• Causing grievous bodily harm with intent to cause grievous bodily harm or wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm - Section 18 Offences Against the Person Act 1861;
This offence happens when an offender inflicts grievous bodily harm (GBH) intentionally, or causes it to prevent himself or someone else being lawfully apprehended or detained.
GBH means really serious physical harm or psychological harm, while wounding requires a breaking of the skin. The types of injuries inflicted include permanent disability, disfigurement, broken bones and injuries requiring lengthy treatment. 
The new guideline gives a sentencing range of between three and 16 years’ imprisonment, which will cover the majority of cases, but judges can impose a maximum penalty of life imprisonment for exceptionally serious instances of the offence.

• Unlawful wounding/causing grievous bodily harm - Section 20 Offences Against the Person Act 1861; Racially/religiously aggravated GBH/Unlawful wounding – section 29 Crime and Disorder Act
This offence occurs when the offender wounds or causes GBH, with or without a weapon, and either intended some kind of bodily harm to someone or was reckless as to whether any such harm might be caused. The level of harm is the same for this offence as in the offence above (section 18); therefore, the type of injuries inflicted are the same.  The difference between this and the previous offence is the intention of the offender at the time of committing it. 
The new guideline gives a sentencing range of a community order to four years’ imprisonment, but judges can impose a maximum sentence of five years’ imprisonment for this offence for the most serious offences. If it is charged as a  racially or religiously aggravated  form of the offence, the maximum is seven years.

• Assault occasioning actual bodily harm - Section 47 Offences Against the Person Act 1861;
This offence occurs when an offender causes actual bodily harm (ABH) to someone . This is harm which affects their health or wellbeing. The level of harm caused is less serious as for section 18 or section 20 above. The types of injury inflicted for this offence include: loss or breaking of teeth;  temporary loss of consciousness extensive or multiple bruising; displaced / broken nose; minor fractures; cuts requiring medical treatment such as stitches, and psychiatric injury not including mere emotions, such as fear, distress or panic. The new guideline gives a sentencing range of a fine, up to three years’ imprisonment for this offence. There is a maximum penalty of five years’ imprisonment available, however, and if it is racially or religiously aggravated, the maximum is seven years.

• Assault with intent to resist arrest - Section 38 Offences Against the Person Act 1861;
This offence occurs when an offender assaults any person carrying out a public service, such as a police officer or security officer, in order to resist or prevent himself or someone else being apprehended or detained. The offence will involve little or no physical harm - if more serious injuries were inflicted, an ABH or GBH charge would be brought. The most important consideration for the sentencer is therefore the intention of the offender. If the assault is on a police officer, a charge under  "assault on a police constable in execution of his duty" (Section 89 Police Act 1996) may be brought, unless there is clear evidence of intent to resist apprehension or prevent detention and the sentencing powers available under section 89 or for common assault  (maximum 6 months' imprisonment) are inadequate.
The new guideline gives a sentencing range of a fine, up to 12 months’ imprisonment for this offence. There is a maximum penalty of two years’ imprisonment for the most serious cases.

 Assault on a police constable in execution of his duty – Section 89 Police Act 1996;
This offence occurs when an offender assaults either a police officer acting in the execution of his or her public duty or someone helping them in this duty. The assault does not result in any serious physical harm and includes acts like pushing and shoving. The injuries sustained are equivalent to those for common assault - if more serious injuries were inflicted, then a more serious charge, like ABH, would be brought.  The new guideline gives a sentencing range of a fine up to 26 weeks imprisonment for this offence. The maximum penalty for this offence is six months imprisonment.

• Common Assault - Section 39 Criminal Justice Act 1988.
Unlike ABH, it is not necessary for the victim to have been physically injured or harmed for a common assault charge to be brought - it is enough for the victim to fear that they would have been injured for common assault to occur. An offender can still be guilty of common assault if physical injury is caused, but the type of injury is relatively minor, such as a graze, scratch, minor bruising, swelling, or a superficial cut. The sentencing range is a discharge up to 26 weeks custody. There is a maximum penalty of six months’ imprisonment. If it is racially or religiously aggravated, the maximum is two years’ imprisonment.

5.   The Sentencing Council was created by the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 to bring together the functions of the two previous bodies, the Sentencing Guidelines Council (SGC) and Sentencing Advisory Panel (SAP), which were disbanded. The Sentencing Council is a more streamlined body with a greater remit to take forward work on sentencing not only through improvements to guidelines but also through the development of a robust evidence base and engaging more with the public to improve understanding about sentences.