Offences against the person – modernising the law on violence

left-right: Professor Dermot Cahill, Head of Bangor Law School; Professor David Ormerod QC, Law Commissioner for Criminal Law and Chaynee Hodgetts, Lecturer in Law.left-right: Professor Dermot Cahill, Head of Bangor Law School; Professor David Ormerod QC, Law Commissioner for Criminal Law and Chaynee Hodgetts, Lecturer in Law.New rules are needed to tackle violent offences and make better use of court time, according to the Law Commission.

A new Law Commission report was launched at a dedicated event held at Bangor University, where Professor Ormerod, Law Commissioner for Criminal Law presented a guest lecture on ‘Reforming Offences Against the Person’, to Bangor Law School students and invited guests (Tuesday 3rd November 2015).

Launching the new report, Professor David Ormerod QC, said:

“Violent behaviour results in up to 200,000 prosecutions each year but the law under which violent offences are prosecuted is out of date and confusing for the courts, defendants and victims.

“If implemented, our recommended reforms will produce a clear, modern statutory code to deal with offences of violence. A logical hierarchy of clearly defined offences will allow prosecutors to make more appropriate and efficient use of valuable court time. And properly labelled offences will make sure the true nature of violent behaviour is recognised for what it is.”

Professor Dermot Cahill, Head of Bangor University’s Law School said: "Professor Ormerod's visit to deliver a distinguished lecture as part of the Criminal Law course here at Bangor, on the day the Law Commission release their report, is an honour for the School, and a fantastic opportunity for our students. It is a rare insight for students to be advised of cutting edge reform proposals, by a Law Commissioner, on their day of issue - in this case, on the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 - and this will be a memorable occasion for our students."

In today’s scoping report, the Law Commission is recommending reforms that would:

  • replace the outdated Offences Against the Person Act 1861 with modern, clear and logical legislation
  • create a new offence of “aggravated assault”, to bridge the gap between common assault and the much more serious actual bodily harm (ABH), and
  • extend the offence of threats to kill to include threats to cause serious injury and threats to rape.

There are over 26,000 prosecutions each year under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 and at least another 100,000 for assault, but the Act is notoriously difficult to understand and use. The language is archaic and obscure. It refers to concepts no longer recognised in law such as “felony” and includes obsolete offences.

The Act covers numerous offences, including those popularly known as ABH and GBH, but they are not coherently classified in order of seriousness or clearly defined.

The Commission is recommending that the Act be replaced with modern legislation based on a Bill drafted during an earlier Home Office attempt at reform. The new Bill is easier to understand. The offences are made clearer and presented in a more logical hierarchy and, for some, a requirement has been introduced that the defendant must have foreseen the level of harm caused.

The recommended new offence of “aggravated assault” would carry a maximum sentence of 12 months and be triable only in the Magistrates’ Court. It would allow prosecutors to divert low-level injury cases from the more-expensive Crown Court to the Magistrates’ Court, in line with the proposed increase in Magistrates’ sentencing powers from six to 12 months introduced by the Criminal Justice Act 2003.

As well as significantly cutting court costs the new offence would allow violent assaults to be charged at a more appropriate level. Currently over 70% of the ABH cases taking up expensive Crown Court time receive sentences of 12 months or less. Charged as aggravated assault, such cases could be heard in the Magistrates’ Courts. In order to keep cases out of Crown Court, many assaults causing injury are currently charged as common assault, which fails to acknowledge the violent nature of the offence.

The Commission’s recommendation to extend the “threatening” offence to include threats to rape and threats to cause serious injury would also allow offending behaviour to be charged and tried at an appropriate level. In the existing law, under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, there are no offences that fall between a threat to kill, which carries a 10-year maximum sentence, and a threat to assault, with a maximum sentence of six months. 

Publication date: 3 November 2015