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Assaults on Emergency Workers

Assault is an offence that has been part of English criminal law for centuries. It is a ‘common law’ offence, meaning that it has not been created by statute (an Act of Parliament), but by case law (court judgments). Subsequent case law has developed the offence of Assault and defined its scope. Assault has, however, been acknowledged in statute. Section 39 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 indicates that the offences of common assault and battery “shall be summary offences and a person guilty of either of them shall be liable to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months, or to both.” A level 5 fine is unlimited, assuming the offence was committed after 13th March 2015. The previous maximum of a £5,000 fine was removed by section 85 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.

The offence of assault can be described as follows: “the apprehension of the use of immediate unlawful violence.” Hence, there is no need to prove that actual unlawful violence was used, merely that the victim apprehended that such violence would be used against them. (Fagan v MPC [1969] 1 Q.B. 439) To ‘apprehend’ violence, the victim need not be put in fear, but must be aware that they are about to be subjected to violence. If the victim does not anticipate any unlawful personal violence, then no assault has taken place. (R v Lamb [1967] 2 Q.B. 981) Where the victim does apprehend immediate unlawful personal violence, an assault will be committed even if there was no actual threat of violence. (Logdon v DPP [1976] Crim LR 121) The actions of the defendant must cause the victim to apprehend immediate unlawful personal violence. Originally, only conduct could amount to an assault. However, it was stated in later judgments that words can amount to an assault. (R v Constanza [1997] Crim LR 576) Interestingly, it has also been held that silence can amount to an assault. (R v Ireland [1997] 3 WLR 534) A common assault can be committed recklessly. A reckless assault requires the foresight of the apprehension that immediate and unlawful violence may be used and the defendant taking the risk.

In 2018, the government pushed legislation to cover further scenarios whereby Assault may be present. The legislation created a new sub-category of the offences of common assault and battery, which are committed against an emergency worker carrying out their role. The Bill came into force on 13th November 2018. It is known in practice as: Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018 (‘the 2018 Act’). The Act, as per section 3, covers: police officers, prison officers, custody officers, fire service personnel, search and rescue services, and paramedics. Further to this, the 2018 Act also means that attacking an emergency worker is a statutory aggravating factor when being sentenced. Essentially, this will allow the court to pass a harsher sentence. The aggravating factor will also apply to offences such as: Actual Bodily Harm (ABH), Grievous Bodily Harm (GBH) and Sexual Assault.

The effect of this piece of legislation is clear: it creates a new offence. Further, the new offence doubles the maximum sentence of 6 months (for standard assault) to 12 months in prison for assaulting an emergency worker. The 2018 Act also provides this protection to unpaid volunteers who support the delivery of emergency services, such as police constables under section 3(2).

There are various reasons behind this Act being enacted. On the one hand, MPs have indicated that they have acted in order to recognise the debt of gratitude the UK public feels towards its emergency services. Another apparent justification for the enactment of this offence can be gleaned from the statistics. There has been an increase in assaults on emergency workers in the last few years. There were 26,000 assaults on police officers between September 2017 and September 2018. There were over 56,435 assaults on NHS staff during 2016 - 2017. The situation is just as dire in the prison environment; assaults on prison officers rose by 70% in the 3 years prior to 2017. One could ask whether a prison sentence or a fine on their own would address this issue adequately. Although the rate of offending has remained constant, the prison population has increased. This would suggest that the prison estate is not fit for purpose and does not meet one of its key functions: to rehabilitate and reform prisoners, allowing them to re-join society at a later point. One potential avenue that could address the issue is the implementation of community schemes which would emphasise rehabilitation through other methods, for example, treatment for drug addiction and/or anger management.

Whilst the 2018 Act does give protection to those working in the emergency services, there are legitimate concerns as to whether the creation of a new offence will act as a sufficient deterrent. The rate of such offences is on the rise. Whether the 2018 Act will influence this in a positive way remains to be seen.

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