Offences against the person – options for reform

In a consultation opening today the Law Commission asks whether – and how – the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 should be reformed.

There are almost 200,000 prosecutions each year under the 1861 Act, but the Act is notoriously difficult to understand and use. The language is archaic and obscure. It refers to concepts no longer recognised in law such as “felony” and “misdemeanour”. And it includes obsolete offences such as “impeding escape from a shipwreck”.

The Act covers numerous offences, including those popularly known as ABH and GBH. But the offences are not all coherently classified in order of seriousness, and they are not clearly defined. This can be confusing for the courts, defendants and victims.

The lack of a clear hierarchy can lead to cases being dealt with in the Crown Court when they could be dealt with more appropriately and at less cost in the Magistrates’ Court.

Many attempts have been made to reform the 1861 Act, with draft Bills being produced by the Law Commission in 1993 and the Home Office in 1998.

In this scoping consultation the Commission examines whether the 1998 Bill could provide the basis for a new, modern statute. In addition, it asks consultees whether a new offence of minor injury, triable only in the Magistrates’ Court, would help to ensure that less serious cases are dealt with appropriately.

The Commission is also seeking views on whether any future reform should include:

  • a dedicated offence to tackle domestic violence, and
  • a way of dealing with serious harm caused by transmitting infectious diseases.

Professor David Ormerod QC, Law Commissioner for Criminal Law, said:

“Violent behaviour results in almost 200,000 prosecutions each year. The harms caused can be grave and have a significant impact on victims and society. But the law under which violent offences are prosecuted is confusing and out of date.

“This project represents the most comprehensive analysis of the law and its problems conducted for a generation. It leads us to believe there is a compelling case for reform.

“Our scoping paper lays a substantial foundation for a clear, modern statute providing a coherent scheme of structured, clearly defined offences that can be readily understood and efficiently prosecuted. We are asking consultees to tell us how the law can best be reformed to achieve this goal.”

The scoping paper, Offences Against the Person, is available on the Law Commission website. Responses are requested by 11 February 2015.

Notes for editors
1. The Law Commission is a non-political independent body, set up by Parliament in 1965 to keep all the law of England and Wales under review, and to recommend reform where it is needed.
2. For more details on this project, visit http://lawcommission.justice.gov.uk/consultations/offences_against_the_person.htm
3. For all press queries please contact:
Phil Hodgson, Head of External Relations:  020 3334 3305
Vincent Scully:  020 3334 3897
Email:  communications@lawcommission.gsi.gov.uk