Grievous bodily harm and wounding are covered in sections 18 and 20 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. Sections 18 and 20 carry different maximum sentences, with section 18 being the considerably more serious of the two. Although there are many common aspects between the two offences, the biggest difference is the Mens Rea which refers to whether or not intention was present.
Section 20 Assault
Section 20 carries the lowest maximum sentence of the two Grievous Bodily Harm (GBH) charges with the maximum penalty being 5 years imprisonment. It is a triable either way offence which means it can be heard at the Crown or Magistrates’ Court. However, the Magistrates’ Court may refer the case to the Crown Court if they feel the case is too serious or complex.
The Actus Reus (guilty act) of section 20 assault includes unlawful wounding and serious bodily harm. Section 47 assault Actual Bodily Harm (ABH) is a less serious offence and GBH is charged when the offence is too serious to be ABH. Bruises and scratches would not be considered to be GBH, whereas a stab wound would be too severe for an ABH offence.
Psychiatric illness and disease transmission can also constitute GBH. This is apparent in the case of R v Mohammed Dica who was the first person to be successfully convicted of section 20 GBH in 2003 after knowingly engaging in sexual intercourse with two women after being found HIV positive. He didn’t notify the women of the risks or inform them that he was carrying the disease. He was convicted on the grounds that his recklessness caused serious harm to the victims’ health.
The Mens Rea of section 20 assault is the intention to cause some harm or recklessness to the victim, regardless of whether harm was actually caused. The defendant needn’t foresee serious injury, he must merely acknowledge the risk of some injury from his actions.
Section 18 Assault
Section 18 GBH assault is the more serious of the two offences as there must be proof that the defendant had full intention to cause serious bodily harm. This differs from the section 20 assault, where the defendant only has to foresee the risk of some injury. Section 18 assault carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment, considerably more than the section 20 offence’s maximum sentence. Section 18 assault is an indictable offence which may only be tried in the Crown Court.
For section 18 assault, recklessness isn’t enough – there must be proof of intention. This may be identified by planned or repeated attacks, prior threats, choosing a particular weapon deliberately or mutilating an object to use it as a weapon. This was defined in the case R v Belfon where the defendant slashed the victim with a razor, inflicting severe wounds on their face and chest. The Court of Appeal decided that proof of specific intent for such wounds would have to be proven if the defendant was to be charged with section 18 assault.
For some defendants, there can be a fine line between section 18 and section 20 assault and understanding the law can be extremely testing. However, there isn’t a fine line between the sentencing of the offences, and if found guilty of a section 18 assault the defendant can face life imprisonment. If you require legal advice on any assault allegations we can provide expert legal advice to help you at this difficult time.