New sentence guidelines for assault

The Sentence Council have released new sentence guidelines for assault which will come into force on the 13th June 2011. Whilst they are not yet in force  judges are already referring to them in sentence so if you have been charged with an assault  you should read this.

The guidelines are for use in both  the Magistrates’ Court and the Crown Court and aim to bring a consistent approach in sentence.  Whilst the principles are directly applicable to both courts, there are separate guidelines for each.

The new guidelines  focus on imposing a sentence that is proportionate to the harm caused to the victim and the culpability of the offender. The existing guidelines place more emphasis on whether the offence was premeditated as  a factor that increases the seriousness of the offence. The new guidelines place far less emphasis on this, recognising that most assaults are spontaneous –  for example, a fight that breaks out in a club. The other big change is that the starting point for sentence guideline is no longer based on the first time offender convicted at trial. A  discount in sentence will, however, still be given for an early guilty plea.

The effect of the guidelines is that for more serious offences of assault, lengthier custodial sentences will be imposed. Conversely, for the more minor offences where little or no harm is caused, more emphasis will be based on community orders as an alternative to custody.

The new guidelines give a sentence range for each offence. Magistrates and judges can still use their own discretion to sentence higher or lower than the recommended range depending on the facts of the case and the circumstances of the offender but ONLY if it is in the interest of justice to do so.  Otherwise offenders must be sentenced within the recommended range.

The guidelines for each offence create three categories which reflect the varying levels of seriousness. Once the starting point is established the court should then consider any mitigating or aggravating features and previous convictions of the offender and then adjust sentence within the specified range. Any credit due for a guilty plea will then be taken into account. An example of an aggravating feature would be use of a weapon, including a shod foot and an example of a mitigating feature would be self-defence gone too far.

The guidelines apply to the following offences:

1. Grievous bodily harm (GBH) with intent – s18 Offences Against the Person Act 1861

A s18 GBH is committed where an offender causes the victim really serious physical or psychological  harm and intends to do so. For example, picking up a glass bottle, breaking off the neck and stabbing the victim with the broken bottle causing serious wounding or disfigurement.

The new guidelines suggest a sentence of between 3 and 16 years custody, with a maximum of life imprisonment for the most serious cases.

2. Unlawful wounding/grievous bodily harm - s20 Offences Against the Person Act 1861; Racially/religiously aggravated unlawful wounding/grievous bodily harm – s29 Crime and Disorder Act

A s20 GBH is committed when an offender causes really serious physical or psychological harm either intending to cause some degree of harm or being reckless as to whether such harm was caused. It is used for the same level of injury as a s18 GBH but lacks the necessary intent to cause that harm. For example, striking someone whilst having a glass in your hand that in the heat of the attack you had forgotten you were holding but on impact with the victim it broke causing serious wounding to the victim.

The new guidelines give a sentencing range of a community order to a four-year custodial sentence;. For the most serious cases of simple s20 wounding a maximum sentence of five years is available and a maximum of seven years if the offence is racially or religiously aggravated.

3. Assault occasioning actual bodily harm (ABH) – s47 Offences Against the Person Act 1861

 An offender commits ABH when s/he either intentionally or recklessly causes physical or psychological harm which is less than really serious but more than transient or merely trifling. For example: a broken tooth; a cut requiring stitching or psychological disturbance which is more than fear, distress or panic.

The new guidelines give a sentencing range between a financial penalty and a three year custodial sentence. For the most serious offences of basic ABH the maximum sentence is a five-year custodial sentence. If the offence is racially or religiously aggravated, the maximum is a seven-year custodial sentence.

4. Assault with intent to resist arrest – s38 Offences Against the Person Act 1861

This offence is committed where an offender causes little or no harm with the intention of preventing the arrest or lawful apprehension of himself or another. For example,  a shoplifter who punches a security guard in order to avoid being apprehended.

The new guideline gives a sentence range of between a financial penalty and a 12 month custodial sentence. The maximum penalty for the most serious offenders is a two-year custodial sentence.

5. Assaulting a police officer acting in the execution of his duty – s89 Police Act 1996

 This offence is committed where an offender assaults a police officer acting in the execution of his duty, causing little or no harm. For example, kicking an officer who is lawfully arresting you.

The new guideline gives a sentence range of a financial penalty to a twenty-six week custodial sentence. The maximum sentence for the most serious offence is a six months custodial sentence.

6. Common assault – s39 Criminal Justice Act 1988

This offence is committed where an offender intentionally or recklessly assaults someone causing little or no harm. A common assault can also include the fear or apprehension of violence; for example, raising your fist at someone as if to punch them without actually doing so  IF the victim feared that an assault was likely.  Examples of common assault injuries include minor bruising or grazing.

The new guidelines give a sentencing range of between a discharge and up to 26 weeks custody. The maximum sentence for the most serious cases is a six month custodial sentence.

To view the new guidelines click here

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