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Assault and the Law

Sabs, monitors, and other activists/campaigners often run the risk of ‘assault‘, especially when out in the field. But what in law is assault?

Essentially an ‘offence against the person’, the Sentencing Council says that assault covers a range of actions, from shoving and pushing to using threatening words to a severe physical attack that leaves the victim permanently disabled. The Crown Prosecution Service says that an assault is any act by which ‘a person intentionally or recklessly causes another to suffer or apprehend immediate unlawful violence’.

Offences of assault fall under the Offences against the Person Act 1861, the Criminal Justice Act 1988 and the Crime and Disorder Act 1998.

There are three basic types of assault offence:

See the FAQs section for details.

Featured image: Middleton Hunt attack a sab (video still Sheffield Hunt Sabs), see also ‘hunt investigator tells of attack that left colleague with fractured neck’ from The Ecologist.

Note that harassment may be a prelude to an assault – while the laws on harassment/intimidation/abuse (which are somewhat interchangeable terms) are complex we have provided an overview at > Harassment and the Law.

 

 

Common assault (covered by s.39 Criminal Justice Act 1988) is when a person inflicts violence on someone else (battery, or ‘the intentional or reckless application of unlawful force to another person’) or makes them think they are going to be attacked.

Common assault does not have to involve physical violence (see Melbreak Huntsman Christopher Nixon convicted of assault). Threatening words, miming the act of hitting, punching, or kicking a victim, running a finger across a throat, or making a threat or a racist comment is enough for the crime to have been committed provided the victim fears that they are about to be attacked.

Deliberately spitting at someone is also common assault.

Actual bodily harm (ABH) means the assault has caused some hurt or injury to the victim.

Physical injury does not need to be serious or permanent but must be more than “trifling” or “transient”, which means it must at least cause minor injuries or pain or discomfort. Psychological harm can also be covered by this offence, but this must be more than just fear or anxiety.

Grievous bodily harm (GBH) means the assault has caused ‘serious physical harm’.

Life-changing injuries should always be charged as GBH, but the harm or damage does not necessarily have to be permanent or dangerous. A broken bone would amount to GBH – in some cases a broken bone might lead to permanent disability but, in others, it might heal without leaving any long-term effects.

GBH can also include psychiatric injury (or someone passing on an infection, for example through sexual activity).

Verbal assault is an intentional threat by word to do violence to another person, coupled with an apparent ability to do so, while creating a well-founded fear in the other person that such violence is imminent without subjecting him or her to physical attack.

Battery is committed when a person intentionally and recklessly applies unlawful force to another – so can include pushing or shoving. It is generally considered the least serious form of assault.

Battery can include instances in which a person is pushed, slapped or even spat at.

Battery is a time-limited offence and must be charged within six months.

A “wound” means a break in the continuity of the whole skin. The definition of ‘wounding’ may encompass injuries that are relatively minor in nature, for example a small cut or laceration.

The injuries involved in a wounding can be less serious than those in GBH, but note that wounding requires that the victim’s skin is broken, either on their body or their inner skin (for example, inside their lip).

It does not include the rupture of blood vessels – so bruising alone would not amount to wounding.

The offence of assault with a weapon is often referred to as ‘assault with intent to cause serious harm’ or ‘assault with intent to cause grievous bodily harm.’ It is an offence under Section 18 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 and is punishable by a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

To be convicted of this offence, a person must have intentionally or recklessly caused injury to another person using a weapon or other object that was capable of causing serious harm. The weapon does not have to be something we might typically think of as a ‘weapon’ like a knife or gun but can be any object that is used to cause injuries, such as a glass bottle and of course a vehicle (and ‘vehicle’ includes a quad bike).

The offence of assault with a weapon requires a specific intent to cause serious harm or grievous bodily harm, which means that the defendant must have acted intending to cause such harm or with the knowledge that it was likely to result from their actions.

If the prosecution is unable to prove this specific intent, the defendant may be charged with a lesser offence such as common assault or battery.

Hunts seem to routinely use their horses to ‘move’ sabs and monitors out of the way and – more rarely – to cause serious injuries and harm.

We have been unable to find a specific offence in law that applies only to horses, though, and going by past examples (two of which are listed below), it is the severity of any injury caused and the intent, and not the fact that a horse has been used, that determines the offence. 

A ‘nudge’ with a horse therefore might be considered to be a ‘shove’ equivalent of ‘battery’ (and still worth recording or reporting to any police present at the hunt), but ‘trampling’ might amount to a charge of Grievous Bodily Harm (GBH) under Section 18 or Section 20 of the Offences against the Person Act 1861. (The categorisation of GBH is not determined by the severity of the injury incidentally. Both the level of injury for Section 20 and Section 18 GBH is the same, the difference lies in intent: Section 18 GBH is Inflicting GBH or wounding with intent to cause GBH, while Section 20 GBH is inflicting GBH or wounding without intent to cause GBH.)

Two recent examples of causing GBH with a horse include:

  • Chris Mardles pleading guilty to GBH after trampling a sab with his horse (Mardles was the whipper-in of the Pytchley with Woodland Hunt at the time of the incident in September 2020).
  • Mark Doggrell, a huntsman with the Blackmore and Sparkford Vale Hunt who trampled Mel Broughton and was charged with recklessly causing GBH (interestingly Doggrell was originally told he would not be prosecuted but the Crown Prosecution Service decided to press charges ‘in the public interest’).

According to Ask the Police, “In most cases, spitting at a person deliberately will constitute an offence of assault. However, if it is accidental it will not usually be deemed to be an offence. An exception to this may be where someone intended to spit at a person, but missed and spat at another person nearby. Despite not being intentional, this may be considered to be a reckless act and the offence may still be committed.”

Assault with intent to resist arrest is committed when a person assaults another person with intent to resist arrest or prevent the lawful apprehension/detention of themselves or another for any offence.

It can apply to situations involving police officers, but can also apply in other circumstances, e.g. if the case involves a store detective or Police Community Support Officer.

In the Crown Court, the maximum sentence is two years’ imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine. In the Magistrates’ Court, it is six months’ imprisonment and/or a fine not exceeding £5,000.

It depends on the type of assault.

Common assault is a summary only offence – a defendant (the person who committed the assault) must appear at court within six months of the date of the incident.

The six-month time limit does not apply to other types of assault such as assault occasioning actual bodily harm (which is an either way offence, meaning it can be heard in magistrates’ court or in the Crown Court), or grievous bodily harm (which is an indictable only offence).

  • It is advisable that if you have been the victim of an assault to report it as soon as possible though. 

Parliament sets the maximum (and sometimes minimum) penalty for any offence. When deciding the appropriate sentence, the court must follow any relevant sentencing guidelines, unless it is not in the interests of justice to do so.

Sentencing for assault depends on the offence type.

 

Common assault:

  • the maximum sentence is six months’ custody
  • if the assault is against an emergency worker, the maximum sentence is one year’s custody
  • if the assault is racially or religiously aggravated, the maximum sentence is two years’ custody

 

Actual bodily harm:

  • the maximum sentence is five years’ custody
  • if the assault is racially or religiously aggravated, the maximum sentence is seven years’ custody

 

Grievous bodily harm or wounding:

  • the maximum sentence is five years’ custody.
  • if the assault is racially or religiously aggravated, the maximum sentence is seven years’ custody
  • if the assault was committed with intent to cause GBH/wounding then the maximum sentence is life imprisonment.


Aggravating factors increasing the severity of the sentence may include:

  • use of a weapon
  • targeting a vulnerable victim
  • the assault was committed under the influence of alcohol or drugs
  • the assault involved an abuse of power or took advantage of a position of trust

Sentences are worked out by assessing harm (an assessment of the damage caused to the victim) and culpability (a measure of how responsible the offender was in the assault).

Factors increasing the severity of the sentence may include:

  • use of a weapon
  • targeting a vulnerable victim
  • the assault was committed under the influence of alcohol or drugs
  • the assault involved an abuse of power or took advantage of a position of trust

 

Factors decreasing the severity of the sentence may include:

  • the assault consisted only of a single blow
  • the assault was an isolated incident
  • the offender:
    • is of good character
    • has shown remorse
    • has a serious medical condition
    • lacks maturity, or has a mental disorder or learning disability
    • is the sole or primary carer for dependent relatives

Self-defence – or defence of another person – is a defence to a charge of assault, where a person honestly (even if mistakenly) believes in the need to defend themselves or another and uses reasonable force on the facts as they believe them to be.

The basic principles of self-defence are set out in Palmer v R, [1971] AC 814 who says, “A person may use such force as is reasonable in the circumstances in the prevention of crime, or in effecting or assisting in the lawful arrest of offenders or suspected offenders or of persons unlawfully at large.”

In other words, self-defence is available as a legal defence against crimes committed against us where force is being (or even suspected of being) used. So if we are being or about to be attacked by, for example, a hunt follower, we are not commiting an assault if we use reasonable force to defend ourselves.

What is reasonable force though? This is difficult to define clearly in law, but the words of Lord Morris in (Palmer v R 1971 AC 814) are repeated on multiple websites: “If the jury thought that that in a moment of unexpected anguish a person attacked had only done what he honestly and instinctively thought necessary, that would be the most potent evidence that only reasonable defensive action had been taken …”

The Crime Prosecution Service says that “A person may use such force as is reasonable in the circumstances for the purposes of:

  • self-defence;
  • defence of another;
  • defence of property;
  • prevention of crime;
  • [making a] lawful arrest.”

Yes. Even when the police are allowed to use force, they commit an assault if they use more force than is reasonable in the circumstances.

This means that if, for example, a person is legally arrested, but then the police restrain the individual with more force or for longer than they need to, that person could sue the police for assault.

Suing the police is clearly going to be complicated and Citizens Advice says “You should get advice from a solicitor. Your legal costs might be more than the amount of damages you would get. You might be eligible for legal aid, but you may have to pay a contribution towards the expenses of the case.”

Note that personal injury claims must be made within three years of the assault taking place.

It apparently is, yes.

We absolutely do not condone any form of assault, even dairy-based ones, and assault should be treated seriously, but it does seem that Essex Police were out to make an example of  ‘Milkshake Girl’ Victoria Thomas Bowen when they charged her with ‘assault by beating’ and criminal damage for throwing the banana-flavoured contents of a takeaway cup at Trump-supporter Nigel Farage in May 2024.

Why police were so quick to charge her while many forces routinely ignore attacks on monitors and sabs by hunts is a question left hanging in the air…

Ms Bowen is is due to appear at Colchester Magistrates’ Court on Tuesday, 2 July.

Have you ever wondered what UK law says about hunting with dogs, shooting, or collecting bird eggs? Or what protection foxes, badgers, bats, and birds of prey have? Whether a gamekeeper is using a snare, spring trap, or a cage trap legally? Wanted to know more about operating drones, using airguns, or driving quad bikes legally? What the different forms of trespass are, what constitutes assault, or what we should do if we’re arrested?

And have you ever been unimpressed with having to search hunting and shooting websites to find some of the information you need?

Us too! Which is why we have developed ‘Protectors of the Wild‘ and laid out the information we need in over thirty simple, mobile-friendly pages just like this one.

Protectors of the Wild‘ is a free resource to help us all become ‘eyes in the field’ by learning how to recognise, record, and report wildlife crime and wildlife persecution.

After all, the more we know, the more any potential criminal will have to be looking over their shoulder wondering if we know enough to Recognise, Record, and Report what they’re up to.

And the more we can all do to help protect the wild.

Have you ever wondered what UK law says about hunting with dogs, shooting, or collecting bird eggs? Or what protection foxes, badgers, bats, and birds of prey have? Whether a gamekeeper is using a snare, spring trap, or a cage trap legally? Wanted to know more about operating drones, using airguns, or driving quad bikes legally? What the different forms of trespass are, what constitutes assault or harassment, or what we should do if we’re stopped and searched or even arrested?

And have you ever been unimpressed with having to search hunting and shooting websites to find some of the information you need?

Us too! Which is why we have developed ‘Protectors of the Wild‘ and laid out the information we need in forty-one simple, mobile-friendly pages and over 500 FAQs just like this one.

Protectors of the Wild‘ is a free resource with two aims: to help us all become ‘eyes in the field’ by learning how to recognise, record, and report wildlife crime and wildlife persecution; and to provide a ‘quick guide’ to anyone interacting with hunts, hunt supporters, or the police.

After all, the more we know, the more any potential criminal will have to be looking over their shoulder wondering if we know enough to Recognise, Record, and Report what they’re up to, and the more we know our rights the better we can protect ourselves.

And the more we can all do to help protect the wild.

The National Wildlife Crime Unit currently has seven priority offences for wildlife crime.

Badger persecution

It is illegal to interfere with or block a badger’s home or ‘sett’. Badger baiting is a centuries-old now illegal blood sport, where small dogs such as terriers or lurchers seek badgers out of their setts before fighting and killing them.

Bat persecution

Bats and their homes are legally protected, so disturbing or removing them is an offence. If bats roost in your roof, you need to obtain a special ‘bat mitigation licence’ from Natural England to be allowed to disturb them. They are hugely important to our ecosystem.

Trade of endangered species

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) sets out which endangered animals and plants have protected status. It is illegal to remove any of them from their natural habitat, possess, or sell them. Currently, the top priorities are European eels, birds of prey, ivory, medicinal and health products, reptiles, rhino horns, and timber.

Freshwater pearl mussel offences

These Endangered mussels (Margaritifera margaritifera) are only found in rivers in Scotland and small parts of England. They can live for more than 130 years but are extremely sensitive to water pollution and have been illegally farmed for years. It is illegal to damage or destroy their habitat or to take, injure or kill them.

Poaching

Fox, deer, and hare hunting are all illegal under the Hunting Act 2004. Poaching offences also cover illegal fishing – when anglers do not obtain a licence or remove protected fish from lakes and rivers without returning them.

Raptor persecution

Birds of prey are often targeted on shooting estates. Their eggs are also traded illegally. It is an offence to target, poison, or kill them, with a particular focus on Golden Sagles, Goshawks, Hen Harriers, Peregrines, Red Kites, and White-tailed Eagles. Disturbing or taking their eggs or chicks is also illegal.

Cyber-enabled wildlife crime

Social media is often used to promote wildlife crime and recruit people to take part in it. Endangered plants and animals are also traded illegally online.

  • Punishment must fit the crime. Conditional discharges and paltry fines are not a disincentive for criminals.

A common complaint is that even if wildlife criminals are brought to court the fines or sentences they get are pathetic and not a disincentive. In most cases judges are giving out the penalties they are allowed to under the law. Changes can be made though. In 2022 the maximum sentence for ‘causing uneccesary suffering’ went from six months to five years. That was the result of targeted public pressure and campaigning. We need to identify where changes should be made and push hard for them.

 

  • Wildlife crime must be notifiable and statistics accurately compiled so that resources can be properly targeted.

Police forces are required by law to inform the Home Office of any notifiable offences, which then uses the reports to compile the crime statistics known as ‘recorded crime’. Currently, wildlife crimes are not ‘notifiable’ though (and wildlife crime involving firearms are also not recorded as firearms offences by the Police).  Without them being notifiable, no one knows how many wildlife crimes are being committed across the UK and where the hotspots are (though ‘grouse moors’ is one obvious response). As we have stated many times on this website, law and legislative enforcement is hugely underfunded and under-resourced. Some of this has undoubtedly been through political choice, but if we at least know which crimes are being committed and where, the resources that are available can be placed where they are needed most.

 

  • There must be changes to make it far easier for all of us to play our part in ‘Recognising, Reporting, Recording’ wildlife cime.

As even a quick glance at the Protectors pages makes clear, laws protecting wildlife are hard to understand. Major pieces of legislation like the Hunting Act 2004  and other laws are riddled with exemptions which strongly favour the hunting, shooting, and agricultural industries. Some date from a century or more ago and don’t reflect the modern world. These need to be updated. While there has undoubtedly been efforts made by successive governmants to use ‘plain english’ to explain legislation, any government wanting to tackle wildlife crime needs to make understanding what is and what isn’t a crime far more easily understood and put resources into a reporting system that the public feel confident using. Crucially, the public need to be sure that if they do report a crime it will be acted upon.

 

  • We have to protect the environment and wildlife properly.

Laws protecting wildlife and the environment need to be revised to reflect the 21st century and the biodiversity and climate crises we are in. Animals (and plants) are not an add-on or a ‘nice to have’ – they have shaped the systems that life depends on, and our laws need to reflect how critically important they are.

 

If you’d like to support just one legislative change, Protect the Wild has launched ‘The Hunting of Mammals Bill: A Proper Ban on Hunting‘ – please sign our petition calling for a proper ban on hunting with dogs.

We would like Protectors of the Wild to be the ‘go to’ free resource, packed with the kind of information that really does help all of us become ‘eyes in the field. But we can’t possibly think of every question that might need answering or every situation someone might find themselves in! And while the information in these pages is largely taken from Government online advice and was compiled in 2023 (and constantlyy updated), perhaps we’ve missed something out.

If you could provide us with legal advice get in touch. Or if you find a mistake or a gap please let us know. That way we can continually improve Protectors of the Wild – for the benefit of animals and all of us. Thanks.

‘Protectors of the Wild’ is a project of Protect the Wild. We have a dedicated email address for anyone wishing to get in touch with a specific Protectors query or with additional information etc. Please use the form on our Contact Protectors page or email protectors@protectthewild.org.uk. Thank you.

Much of the information we give in these pages is very technical or to do with legislation which can be revised without much notice. While we have worked very hard on these pages and we take keeping our information accurate and up-to-date very seriously, Protect the Wild are not legal professionals. Just to make sure no-one thinks we’re offering professional legal advice, we feel obliged to include the following disclaimer on every page.

  • Please think of the ‘Protectors of the Wild’ pages as a ‘first stop’ before seeking legal advice. We provide detailed information but not professional advice. The information provided by Protect the Wild should NOT be considered or relied on as legal advice and is for general informational purposes only. Any of the material on our website may be out of date at any given time, and we are under no legal obligation to update such material. While we update and revise as often as we can, Protect the Wild assumes no responsibility for the accuracy and correctness of any information, or for any consequences of relying on it. Please do not act or refrain from acting upon this information without seeking professional legal advice.