Nobody could have been failed to be moved by some of the horrific cases that we have seen of people who have been attacked by having acid thrown over them.
Unsurprisingly, this has lead to calls from various quarters to look at whether the sentencing for these offences is high enough (including from Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary). But is a change in the law necessary?
It is worth looking at what offences people who carry out acid attacks would be charged with currently :
- s18 – Grevious Bodily Harm (intentionally causing really serious harm) – maximum sentence : life
- s20 – Grevious Bodily Harm (causing really serious harm without intending to) – maximum sentence : 5 years
- Throwing corrosive fluid on a person (with intent to cause Grevious Bodily Harm) – s29 Offences Against the Person Act 1861 – life
A person who is caught carrying a container of acid with the intention of using it, would be charged with Possession of an Offensive Weapon (s1 Prevention of Crime Act 1953). The maximum sentence is 4 years.
There is also an offence under s64 Offences Against the Person Act 1861, with a maximum sentence of 2 years, for anyone who “shall knowingly have in his possession, or make or manufacture, any … noxious thing … with intent by means thereof to commit … any of the felonies in this Act“. This is a wider offence that covers people having the acid at home or outside, and the prosecution do not have to prove the intent to cause Grevious Bodily Harm.
There are other offences that could cover the above, such as :
- Administering a destructive or noxious thing thereby endangering life or inflicting grievous bodily harm – s23 Offences against the Person Act 1861 – maximum 10 years
- Administering … a destructive or noxious thing with intent to injure, aggrieve or annoy, contrary to section – s24 Offences against the Person Act 1861 – maximum 5 years
Do we need more law?
Looking at that, anyone who carries out an acid attack intending to cause serious harm (and it is likely that anyone who throws acid onto someone else is going to have difficulty persuading a jury that they didn’t have that intention) is already facing a life sentence, and you can’t get more severe than life.
Someone who causes acid burns without intending really serious harm would be liable to up to 10 years under s23 Offences Against the Person. Is that long enough?
It has to be remembered that the offence is effectively the s20 Offences Against the Person Act one, which has a maximum sentence of only 5 years.
On that basis, we would probably suggest that 10 years is sufficient. As we said, the circumstances where someone is throwing acid on another without intending really serious harm will be few and far between.
Is there a gap in the law?
But it may be that the Government should raise the sentences for those who are caught before they get very far – perhaps to target those who are carrying acid around outside their house unlawfully.
On the face of it, someone who has a bottle full of acid would be carrying a ‘weapon of whatever description designed or adapted for the discharge of any noxious liquid, gas or other thing‘ which is an offence under s5(b) Firearms Act 1968, carrying a sentence of 10 years.
However, the Court of Appeal (in 1990 in R v Formosa 92 Cr App R 11) ruled that a Fairy Liquid bottle with hydrochloric acid did not fall into the section.
This leaves prosecutors to charge under the Offensive Weapons legislation with a maximum sentence of 4 years. Is that long enough? Given the current attitude to knives and other weapons, it would not be a surprise if Parliament legislated to include containers of acid in the Firearms Act, increase the sentence for the general Offensive Weapons law, or to introduce a specific offence along the lines of the s64 Offences Against the Person Act 1861 with a higher maximum sentence.
Legislating in haste rarely produces good results, so hopefully whatever legislation does come (if any), is only added after full debate.
In fairness, the BBC have reported that there will be a much wider review covering not just sentencing, but the following :
- Whether judges have sufficient sentencing powers to deal with acid attack perpetrators
- New guidance for police officers on preventing attacks, searching potential perpetrators and helping victims at the scene
- The Poisons Act 1972 will be assessed for whether it should cover more acids and harmful substances
- Crown Prosecution Service guidance to prosecutors – and how they class acid and corrosive substances as “dangerous weapons” – will be reviewed
- Retailers to agree measures to restrict sales of acids and other corrosive substances
- New research to understand the motivations for carrying out acid attacks
- Ensuring victim impact statements are completed in every case by the police
- Confirming appropriate support is provided to victims – including the initial medical response, giving evidence in court and long-term recovery
Some of this is clearly sensible, but it is perhaps worth holding fire on judgment until we see the details. It should also be noted that most of this will not require an Act of Parliament, and it is likely that the police will be working on it whatever happens from the debate in Parliament.