Defining Assaults

Defining AssultsWith so many different classifications of assaults, it can often be very confusing to determine the actual extent of an offence that may have occurred. To do so, it is necessary to consider a number of crucial aspects. These include the level and nature of any injuries sustained (i.e. the actus reus) and the offender’s intention to inflict these injuries in the first instance (i.e. the mens rea).

We all are no doubt familiar with the terms ‘ABH’ and ‘GBH’, which are rather colloquially branded about in many nauseating television programmes that seem to glamorise such violence. But what do these acronyms really mean, and what are the fundamental elements that need to be present in order to establish that such an offence has been committed? This article considers exactly that, while acting as a reminder of the official legal provisions which set out this area of criminal law.

Common Assault

If we were to place assaults in order of their seriousness, as indeed we will in this article, a common assault certainly carries the least harsh sanctions. This particular classification of assault comes as a real surprise to anyone who is studying law for the first time, as there does not actually have to be any physical contact in order for a common assault to have taken place.

It is enough for the victim to merely apprehend the fact that he or she is facing an immediate threat of personal physical violence. This is provided for under s.39 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988. Furthermore, the perpetrator would have to intend to cause harm or be reckless for the victim to apprehend immediate unlawful violence.

Therefore, in other words, a common assault would have taken place if it is the perpetrator’s intention for a person to feel as though he or she is being threatened or may be physically attacked imminently.


In reality, the word ‘battery’ is used to describe a form of assault which is not as severe as the name would immediately suggest. In order to have committed a battery, the perpetrator would only have had to inflict unlawful personal violence on a victim, and this could include an action as minor as pushing or prodding. Even spitting at somebody is classified as battery. The mens rea for the offence is where the perpetrator (defendant) intentionally or recklessly inflicts unlawful violence. 

Assault Occasioning Actual Bodily Harm (ABH)

We are now entering the realm of more serious forms of assault. This type of assault and all others discussed below are covered in the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 (OAPA). This particular assault falls under s.47 of this Act.

In order for this type of assault to have taken place, three elements need to be present. These are (1) an assault which has (2) occasioned (or caused) (3) actual bodily harm. This actual bodily harm need not be construed as serious; it could be as minor as a bruise, a scratch or swelling, and even mental harm is covered under this legislative provision. The mens rea for this assault is where the perpetrator intends to cause or recklessly cause the assault; the maximum penalty is imprisonment for a term of up to five years. This is a ‘triable either way’ offence (through either the magistrates’ courts or the Crown Court), but the maximum prison term will be enforced only upon indictment through the Crown Court.

Wounding or Inflicting Grievous Bodily Harm (GBH)

This assault is covered under s.20 of the OAPA. For this type of assault to have taken place, an actual wounding would have had to occur, and this would need to involve both layers of the skin being broken and other forms of injury that would be construed as ‘serious’ (e.g. broken bones). 

Although this type of assault is more serious than that described in s.47, it carries exactly the same level of punitive measures and is also a ‘triable either way’ offence. In comparison with s.18 (which we will consider next), the mens rea for this offence is not usually too difficult for prosecutors to prove, as it need only be confirmed that the defendant intended to cause or recklessly caused some harm. The term ‘some harm’ is crucial here, as the defendant need not have intended to cause serious bodily harm. If this were the case, the prosecution would aim to rely upon the next and most serious assault classification.

Wounding or Causing Grievous Bodily Harm with Intent

This assault falls under s.18 of the OAPA and is by far the most serious non-fatal offence that can take place. In recognition of the seriousness of this offence, the maximum penalty may include life imprisonment. Moreover, this is an indictable offence only, so Magistrates would always have to pass such a case on to the Crown Court.

The actus reus of the offence is exactly the same as in s.20 (above). However, it is the mens rea requirements for this specific offence that the prosecution may find particularly challenging at times. This is because the prosecution has to prove that the defendant had one of two ulterior intents:

  • Intention to cause or recklessly caused grievous bodily harm
  • Intention to resist or prevent the lawful apprehension or detainer of any person

If this sounds easy, it is not! Many prosecutors are unable to prove this additional and essential requirement for a conviction under s.18 and, as a consequence, often have to rely upon s.20 instead (which as we have already seen, carries much less harsh sanctions).

So there we have it. Whilst we appreciate that many people are already aware of these types of assaults, often one or two snippets of information regarding the fine details of the offences of assault can escape you. It never hurts to refresh your memory about the elements of each particular offence.

The Institute of Legal Secretaries and PAs aims to provide our Members with similar legal refreshers and updates on a regular basis, and we always try to keep these varied and in sympathy with any relevant current opinions.

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