What is Grievous Bodily Harm?

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  • Written By: Jodee Redmond
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 15 February 2020
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Grievous bodily harm (GBH) is a term used under British law to refer to inflicting a serious wound on another person. The Offenses Against the Person Act of 1861 sets out penalties for grievous bodily harm offenses. Sections 18 and 20 of the Act deal with GBH offenses and set out penalties for them.

British law has specific wording for what constitutes a wound. Use of a weapon to inflict harm is not required. The statute is written to include injuries sustained from striking using the hands or kicking as possibly constituting grievous bodily harm. The skin must be broken and the victim must be bleeding to fit the definition of grievous bodily harm. A single drop of blood is sufficient to meet this standard.

Internal bleeding does not fit the legal definition required to meet the standard of GBH. The blood must flow outside of the body. Under the strict definition of grievous bodily harm, a broken bone that doesn't penetrate the skin, called an open fracture, doesn't meet the standard either.

Under the provisions of Section 18 of the Offenses Against the Person Act, an individual who intentionally inflicts grievous bodily harm on another person may be sentenced to life in prison. This section refers to a deliberate and malicious act by the offender. It goes on to include grievous bodily harm inflicted when the offender was attempting to thwart the arrest of a person.


Section 20 of the Act has similar wording to Section 18. It refers to an offense committed either with or without a weapon. A person convicted under this Section may be sentenced to up to five years in prison for his or her crime.

The judge hearing a case involving an allegation of GBH can consider mitigating factors before handing down the sentence. An act committed spontaneously, as opposed a pre-meditated one, may lead to a lighter sentence. The location of the victim's injuries is also considered when making sentencing decisions. Head injuries are considered more severe than those inflicted elsewhere, and the judge may impose a harsher sentence in that situation.

Aggravating factors are also considered when a judge is making sentencing decisions in cases involving grievous bodily harm. They include cases where the assault was planned in advance, the offense was committed by several people acting together, or where the victim was a vulnerable individual or someone working in the public sector. Using a weapon during the commission of the offense is another example of an aggravating factor that may mean a harsher sentence.


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