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Offences of assault range from the most serious which may be charged as grievous bodily harm with intent or even attempted murder right down to the most minor matter where no injury of any kind whatsoever is caused which may be charged as ‘common assault’. But no matter how serious or otherwise the assaults, all of these offences have one thing in common; they are all subject to the law of self defence. Anybody who is attacked is entitled to defend themselves and anybody who sees another person being attacked is entitled to go to the defence of that other person; however there are two principles that the law applies.
The first is that if it is possible you should seek to remove yourself from the position before engaging in a fight, those who willingly engage in aggressive behaviour and an exchange of blows are unlikely to be able to claim self defence.
The second principle is that reasonable force must be used. By reasonable the law means proportionate. So for example if man A were to be punched by man B then man B may be entitled to return the blow in order to defend himself to return a punch with a punch would be likely to be considered by the court to be reasonable. If man B however were to pull out a gun and shoot man A this would not be considered reasonable force and the defence of self defence would not succeed.
Self defence is one of the most complex and grey areas of criminal cases although the law itself is relatively straight forward the facts which may pertain to any case by its nature will be unique and often open to interpretation as different parties have different recollections and different views. It is always possible for one to defend themselves indeed that must be the case however the law of self defence does not give permission to engage in fights or acts of aggression willy-nilly and even when one is forced to defend oneself only reasonable force can be used. If force going beyond reasonable force is used then an assault may still be committed even though there may be mitigating circumstances.
What constitutes a legitimate defence of self defence depends upon the precise circumstances and facts and each of those will be unique to the case concerned.
Assault charges vary greatly from the most serious assault which may lead to charges of grievous bodily harm with intent or even attempted murder to the most minor where no injury is caused which might simply be charged as ‘common’ assault. The penalties for the most serious assaults including those under section 18 of The Offences against the Person Act 1861 (causing grievous bodily harm with intent) or wounding with intent, are punishable with life imprisonment at the Crown Court.
Such offences of course are very serious and are dealt with accordingly but even minor offences of assault where no injury whatsoever is caused may be still punishable by up to six months imprisonment in the Magistrates Court.
Depending upon which offence is charged will depend upon the precise facts but essentially all assaults require in practical terms both an intention to cause an assault and to cause in the other persons mind a fear of physical contact plus physical contact itself at least in the majority of circumstances. It is possible to commit the offence of assault without any physical contact but such offences are very rarely if ever charged.
The physical contact itself may be very slight indeed potentially any unauthorised bodily contact could amount to an assault. This can be quite problematic as in the ordinary discourse of life there is very often some physical contact; jostling at a bus stop for example or playing a game of football or rugby involves physical contact, however unless such contact goes above and beyond what would usually be regarded as acceptable such contact would not be regarded as an assault. In some contact sports such as rugby there could be considerable physical contact without there being any assault.
Conversely it is possible to commit the offence of assault with the slightest degree of physical contact simply grabbing hold of someone’s arm lightly enough to not leave any mark or gently pushing them could still amount to offences of assault if the person concerned should wish to regard themselves assaulted and if the law should agree.
Up until fairly recently the law’s fairly robust approach to the question of assaults has meant that it was rare if ever that such very minor assaults ever found themselves before the courts but in the current atmosphere of the ‘zero tolerance’ for any behaviour which is deemed inappropriate prosecution for assaults of the most minor nature are now commonplace.
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