The recommendations released today call for the replacement of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 with modern, clear and logical legislation.
The Commission would like to see the creation of a new offence of “aggravated assault”, to bridge the gap between common assault and the much more serious actual bodily harm (ABH).
The report also urges the Government to 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 reportedly difficult to understand and use.
The language, which is described by the Law Commission as “archaic and obscure,” also refers to concepts no longer recognised in law such as ‘felony’, and includes obsolete offences such as ‘impeding an escape from a shipwreck’.
Launching the new report at a dedicated event at Bangor University, Professor David Ormerod QC, Law Commissioner for criminal law, 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behaviour results in up to 200,000 prosecutions each year but the law under which violent offences are prosecuted is out of date and confusing for the courts, defendants and victims.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.”
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 proposed 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.
According to the report, the changes would significantly cut court costs and the new offence would allow violent assaults to be charged at a more appropriate level.
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.
Under existing law 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.