Same Harm, Different Sentence- How Section 18 and Section 20 GBH differ


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Created on May 05, 2022

Grievious Bodily Harm (GBH)

Facing an allegation of Grievous Bodily Harm (GBH) is a very serious thing. If you are in this position, you will inevitably be concerned with the outcome of the case and the consequences of conviction of such a serious criminal offence.

This blog will attempt to help you understand the law of GBH and detail the differences between the two GBH offences, as well as indicate possible sentences for both offences.

Whatever situation you find yourself in, this blog is designed to help you further understand your position.

What is GBH?

Grievous bodily harm is defined as ‘really serious harm’ being caused to another. This is the most severe form of unlawful violence below murder, as GBH involves the most serious injuries and is the most serious form of assault against a person.

The courts have interpreted GBH to mean ‘really serious harm’, this includes a number of injuries. We are talking about broken bones, stab wounds, injuries caused by glassing, bullet wounds and brain injuries. This list is non-exhaustive but gives an indication of the types of injury which would constitute GBH.

Case-law has suggested that GBH could also include psychological harm caused as a result of one’s action. However, this must be a serious medically recognised psychiatric condition and not simply fear or distress caused by a defendant.

There is no legal requirement for the injuries sustained by a person to be long-term or even permanent. Recovery from an injury amounting to GBH does not prevent conviction.

What is the difference between GBH and ABH?

Grievous Bodily Harm and Actual Bodily Harm (ABH) sound very similar. Both offences involve the infliction of unlawful force. Whilst this blog does not specifically cover ABH, it is pertinent to note that ABH is a lesser offence against the person than GBH.

Injuries amounting to ABH are more minor, such as bruises, scratches, bite marks and swelling. These are defined as ‘injury that interferes with the health or comfort of the victim’.

Why are there two GBH offences?

GBH can be categorized in two ways. A Section 20 GBH is the less severe of the two, whilst a Section 18 GBH is the more serious.

The categorisation of GBH is not determined by the severity of the injury. Both the level of injury for Section 20 and Section 18 GBH is the same, as set out above.

A clear distinction, however, can be drawn between the potential sentence and the severity of the injury caused – which will be discussed later in this blog.

The differentiating element between a Section 20 and Section 18 GBH is the intention of the defendant.

What are the differences?

–          Section 20 GBH – Inflicting GBH or wounding without intent to cause GBH

–          Section 18 GBH – Inflicting GBH or wounding with intent to cause GBH

Why is it necessary to have two offences?

Let’s say, for example, you are a young person out at a bar. Someone bumps into you and spills your drink down your shirt. You stupidly confront him and catch him on the chin with a punch.

Whilst in this situation, you may have intended to punch him, what you didn’t intend was the consequences that resulted.

After punching this individual, he falls into a table with a number of glasses on, which results in him suffering nasty cuts to his neck, requiring hospital treatment.

Let’s then take the same example, but instead of punching the individual, you smashed a glass on his neck, intending to cause him really serious harm by doing so.

In both examples, the victim has sustained very bad injuries. However, the law has differentiated between circumstances akin to the two scenarios. As such, a Section 20 GBH can be committed recklessly. The use of a weapon is often indicative of a Section 18 GBH.

What are the sentences for Section 20 and Section 18 GBH?

Section 18 GBH

With Section 18 GBH being the more severe crime, it also carries a much greater sentence.

If convicted of a Section 18 GBH, the maximum sentence you could receive is a life sentence of imprisonment.

Most cases will not be sentenced to life imprisonment, the most severe cases have a starting point of 12-years imprisonment.

At the lower end of severity, a starting point of 3-years imprisonment will be taken.

Section 20 GBH

The maximum sentence for a Section 20 GBH is 5-years imprisonment.

The most severe cases will take a starting point of 4-years imprisonment. At the lower end of severity 26-weeks custody will be taken as a starting point.

What is the reality of sentences for GBH?

The Sentencing Council guidelines on GBH sentencing indicate a number of factors that are taken into account when a person is sentenced for GBH.

As indicated above, the actual injury sustained by the person has bearing on the categorisation of the case. The more severe the injury, the higher the category the offence is placed in for sentencing.

Balanced with this are a number of other factors that indicate the level of sentence on the guidelines. Increasing the culpability of a defendant are factors such as previous convictions, a repeated or planned attack, how vulnerable the person is, use of a weapon, prolonged attack, and taking a leading role in a group activity.

Lowering the culpability factors include acting in excessive self-defence, no use of a weapon, impulsive/spontaneous attach and having mental disorder linked to the commission of the offence.

These so-called ‘culpability’ factors, when taken with the severity of the injury, give a starting point for the court to sentence upon.

How can Old Bailey Solicitors help?

At times, with cases of GBH, police will interview an allegation of GBH as a Section 18 case. It may be the case that you are then charged with Section 20 GBH, if the Crown Prosecution Service find there to be sufficient evidence to reach a charging threshold for it.

A charge of Section 20 or Section 18 GBH can be a worrying and daunting time in your life. Should the Crown Prosecution Service decide to charge you with an offence, this does not necessarily mean you will be convicted of it. Old Bailey Solicitors will take time and care to prepare your case, keeping you in the loop at all times and will endeavour to achieve the best possible result for you.

In many circumstances, fighting a case in court might not be in your best interests, negotiation is a core part of what we do. It may be the case that representations can be made to request a case is reviewed and charges be lowered.

For example, a case of Section 18 GBH may be lowered to a Section 20 GBH if entering a guilty plea. Alternatively, a case of Section 20 GBH may become an ABH. These so-called basis of pleas are not available in every circumstance. However, our expert legal team will consider the most minute details of a case to consider whether it is in your best interests to enter a basis of plea to a lower charge.

Old Bailey Solicitors has a strong track record of dealing with GBH cases, with notable successes for our clients. Please do get in contact with us to for legal assistance and support to fight any allegation of GBH, no matter how serious or whatever the circumstances may be. If you wish to discuss any of the matters raised in this blog, please do not hesitate to contact our offices to arrange an initial consultation.


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