Actual bodily harm (ABH) is a criminal offence under Section 47 of the Offences against the Person Act 1861.

Assaults which are described as actual bodily harm cause injuries which are serious but don’t cause serious permanent damage to the victim – for example an injury which requires stitches.

Whether an injury is sufficiently severe or not is usually left up to prosecutors or investigating police officers to decide. Meanwhile the Crown Prosecution Service suggests any injury which affects the victim’s health or comfort can constitute actual bodily harm, as long as it is provable.

The perpetrator also doesn’t necessarily have to intend to cause an injury – they only have to intend to apply unlawful force. This is known as committing the offence “recklessly”, as opposed to “intentionally”.

For example, if a person pushes another person and they fall causing an injury, they can still be convicted of ABH because they intended to push the person.

The Crown Prosecution Service recommends a charge of ABH, instead of the lesser Common Assault, in cases where a sentence of over six months is likely.


Grievous bodily harm (GBH) is a criminal offence under Sections 18 and 20 of the Offences against the Person Act 1861.

It is a more serious crime than ABH, as committing GBH means causing really serious injuries which severely affect the health of the victim, such as broken bones or permanent disfigurement. It’s the most serious form of non-fatal assault.

Unlike ABH, there is a question of intent. Section 18 GBH offences involve some aspect of intent, while section 20 offences are still unlawful and malicious, but lack the intent to cause really serious injury.

Intent can be shown through, for example, threats, deliberately using a weapon, or planning the attack.

What are the maximum penalties for GBH and ABH?

ABH carries a maximum penalty of five years’ imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine not exceeding the statutory maximum.

For GBH, if you are convicted under section 20 in a Crown Court, the maximum penalty is five years’ imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine.

If you are convicted in a Magistrates’ Court, the maximum penalty is six months behind bars and/or a fine.

But if you are convicted of GBH under section 18, you can only be tried in a Crown Court and the maximum penalty is life imprisonment.