Under Sections 18 and 20 of the Offences against the Person Act, GBH or Grievous Bodily Harm is a criminal offence. A victim of this offence must have sustained significant harm as a direct result of assault or battery. Where there was an intention to cause harm to the individual rather than to actually commit serious harm, the offence will be dealt with under Section 20. If an offence is dealt with under Section 20 it will be classed as wounding with intent.


Where there was intent to inflict significant harm on the victim, this will be processed under Section 18 because it is a more serious offence.

Offenders convicted under Section 20 of the Offences against the Person Act may receive a custodial sentence no longer than five years. For the more serious offence under Section 18, the offender could be sentenced to life in prison. Usually for the Section 18 offence, sentences range in severity from three to 16 years depending on the circumstances and any aggravating factors.

Section 20 Assaults

If the offender commits Grievous Bodily Harm and it is classed as a Section 20 assault, this will result in the lowest sentence, with a maximum term in prison of five years. These offences are referred to as an either way offence because they can be dealt with by both the Magistrates Court and the Crown Court. If the case is deemed to be too serious or complex, the Magistrates Court may instruct that the case is dealt with by the Crown Court.

Within Section 20, there may be an Actus Reus (guilty act) which will involve unlawful serious bodily harm or unlawful wounding. A Section 47 assault also known as Actual Bodily Harm (ABH) is not as serious but where an ABH offence is deemed to be too severe, it will be dealt with as GBH. Injuries such as scratches or bruises are not sufficient to warrant a GBH charge, while a stab wound is too serious to be dealt with under ABH.  Under the Mens Rea of a Section 20 assault, there must be an intention to cause serious harm regardless of whether any harm was caused. Defendants don’t need to inflict serious injury on the victim, there just needs to be an understanding there that their actions would inflict some kind of harm.

Section 18 Assault

An assault classed as a Section 18 offence is the most serious form of GBH. For the prosecution to be successful in this case, it must be proven that the defendant intended to cause significant bodily harm. This is very different to the Section 20 assault where a defendant only has to foresee the risk of harm/injury. A Section 18 assault will result in a maximum prison term of life which is considerably greater than the maximum term for a Section 20 offence. Section 18 offences can only be heard at a Crown Court. When dealing with this offence, proving recklessness is not sufficient; it must be proven that the defendant had intent. This could be repeated or planned attacks, previous threats or selecting a particular weapon that the defendant knows will cause serious harm.

In some instances, there can be a fine line between a Section 20 and a Section 18 offence and the law in these areas can be extremely complex. Nevertheless, when it comes to sentencing, it is much clearer.

For there to be a successful conviction, it must be proven that the defendant committed some form of serious harm or wounded another individual.

Where Grievous Bodily Harm is committed, it means that an individual will maliciously and unlawfully wound someone or inflict grievous bodily harm. In the context of law, wounding means breaking the outer skin or the inner skin of the lip or cheek but it does not include the rupture of any internal blood vessels.

GBH is a very serious offence. When it proceeds to court, it will be for the jury to determine whether the offence and the harm caused to the victim was serious. Really serious harm would include:

  • An injury that resulted in loss of sensory function, permanent disability or a visible disfigurement, displaced or broken limbs such as a fractured skull, broken cheek bones, jaws, ribs or compound fractures.
  • An injury which causes a significant loss of blood which requires a transfusion or results in a prolonged period of incapacity or treatment
  • Serious injury to mental health

With each of the above, the prosecution will need to provide expert evidence to support their claim.

The definition surrounding wounding will incorporate many different injuries, some of which may be relatively minor such as a laceration or small cut. In these instances, the assault should be treated as Common Assault or ABH depending on the seriousness of the offence.

When deciding on the severity of the offence, courts should assess the culpability of the offender and the harm that they caused or intended using the following factors:

Factors which signify the most harm:

  • Injury which can include the transmission of diseases or causing psychological harm
  • If the victim is particularly vulnerable due to their personal circumstances
  • Repeated or sustained assault on the same victim

Factors which signify lesser harm

Any injury which is less serious in the overall context of the offence

Higher culpability offences

There may be on occasions, statutory aggravating factors and these will occur if the offence has been motivated by hostility to the victim based on their presumed or actual sexual orientation.

Additional aggravating factors include;

  • Substantial premeditation
  • The use of a weapon or equivalent (this can include anything such as head-butting or the use of acid)
  • A clear intention to cause more serious harm than what was actually caused
  • Leading a group or a gang

There are also factors which result in lower culpability. This is applicable where the defendant:

  • Is a member of a gang or group
  • If they received a particular level of provocation
  • Absence or lack of pre meditation
  • A mental disorder or disability where it can be linked to the offence

Self defence

When building a case for Grievous Bodily Harm, the prosecutors will need to evaluate several factors such as;

  • Medical evidence and/or forensics – Experts may need to provide evidence to support the fact that the injuries were consistent with the allegations made against the defendant
  • Instances of mistaken identity
  • Whether the defendant could plead self defence

For anyone charged with a Section 18 or Section 20 GBH offence, it is crucial that you seek legal advice quickly. A good GBH solicitor can provide you with the advice and support you through your case, providing the required legal representation.


About the author:

This article was written by a member of the Expert Answers legal advice team and posted by Lloyd Barrett. Expert Answers provides online legal advice on all aspects of UK Law to users in the United Kingdom.