Assault is a complicated subject – and the manner in which UK law defines it is broader and more widely ranging than most people think.
In this feature, we will offer a brief overview of the legal definition of assault, as well as how that definition affects those in the security industry whose job often involves observing it, confronting it and sometimes experiencing it.
Throughout this piece, we will attempt to keep a respectful tone, as we understand the sensitive nature of the subject being discussed.
What is assault?
The law in this country defines assault as the infliction of intentional or reckless harm towards an individual. In criminal terms, it can be charged as common assault, actual bodily harm (ABH) or grievous bodily harm (GBH) depending on the severity of the incident and the injuries sustained by the victim.
It is commonly assumed that assault begins and ends with physical harm. However, this is not the case. In legal terms, an assault may take place even if no physical contact is made.
For example, if one person issues the threat of assault to another, the person issuing the threat has committed assault. Accordingly, actions such as intentional shoving or spitting may also be considered minor acts of assault.
Assault should also not be confused with the definition of reasonable force. Reasonable force is defined by the law as the amount of force necessary to protect yourself or your property from unlawful aggression or harm.
Reasonable force is always proportional to the threat being offered at the time, so it is legal to pick up a weapon yourself if you are being attacked by a person wielding a weapon.
If the action ceases to be defensive (such as a person using a weapon against an unarmed assailant of the same sex, size and build, or a person subduing a criminal but continuing to harm them after they no longer present a threat), this action will then be considered an act of ‘excessive force’ and is therefore a crime. Assault charges may arise from the use of excessive force, but the two are technically separate crimes.
What follows is an overview of the main types of assault as they are set out in law.
Common assault occurs in cases where one person hurts another or causes another person to believe that they intend to hurt them. Common assaults can range from very minor incidents, such as one person shaking their fist at another, spitting or shouting in their face, to actual physical actions such as pushing and shoving.
If physical violence is used, this is more likely to be considered ‘battery’ or ‘assault by beating’.
Common assault may also be accidental. If one person accidentally leads another to believe that they are about to be harmed (for example, if a minor dispute has become heated, but neither person intends violence), this may still be considered a common assault.
Door staff and other security personnel may witness common assault during the course of discharging their duties. They may also find themselves to be targets of assault. This will be expanded upon later.
In such cases, door staff are not permitted to arrest people the way that police officers are. In cases of assault, a security officer’s options are quite limited. The most obvious course of action would be to eject a person committing assault from the premises, by force if necessary. As long as the use of reasonable force applies, the security personnel will have acted in accordance with the law and no assault will have taken place.
Once the assailant has left the premises, however, door supervisors legally have no right to do anything else to them. The perpetrator is simply a member of the public and, unless they attempt to regain entry to the building from which they have been ejected, they must not be harmed or threatened in any way.
In more extreme cases, such as where a person appears to be about to commit a serious crime (such as burglary or assault), the security officer may perform a citizen’s arrest.
Under the law, any UK citizen may arrest another if that citizen is committing an ‘indictable offence’ (this essentially means a serious crime). A member of the public may make a citizen’s arrest only if a police constable is unable to make the arrest and only in instances wherein the individual is harming themself of others, damaging property or attempting to escape before police can arrive.
Indecent assault varies from common assault in that the incidents are sexual in nature. Before we venture any further with this topic, the term ‘sexual’ must be understood in legal, as opposed to personal, terms.
If the assault involves any overt sex act (e.g. any kind of sex or masturbation), then it is obviously sexual in nature. However, in some cases, the circumstances or purpose must be considered with regard to determining whether or not the assault was sexual in nature.
If the act is not by itself sexual, but one party relates to it in a sexual manner (e.g., having a fetish), this does not constitute an indecent assault in the eyes of the law.
Examples of indecent assault include engaging in sexual activity with any person who is unable to give their full consent. This may be because the person is under 16 (the legal age of consent), suffers from mental health issues or disabilities or is unable to give consent for other reasons, such as suffering the effects of too much alcohol.
Any incident of sexual activity involving an unwilling participant is considered an act of indecent assault. This includes inappropriate touching or forcing a person to observe a sex act that they do not wish to observe.
Essentially, any non-consensual sexual act qualifies as indecent assault. Rape (quantified by the law as any non-consensual penetration by a penis) also falls under this banner, as do the varying degrees of related offences.
In instances where indecent assault is alleged to have taken place, door supervisors do have limited powers of intervention. If the victim is willing to involve the police (and this must be ascertained before any action is taken), the security officer may notify the police of the incident and detain the perpetrator until they arrive.
Actual Bodily Harm (ABH)
Assault occasioning actual bodily harm, to give it it’s full title, was first defined as a crime by UK law in the year 1861. It differs from common assault because physical harm must always have been inflicted in order for this law to apply.
For ABH to have occurred, the harm caused to the victim must be more than minor (otherwise only common assault charges would apply). The wounds need not be overly serious, but they need to be more egregious than a bit of pushing or shoving.
If the incident leaves physical evidence on the victim’s body (e.g., bruising or scratch marks) then this could potentially be classified as ABH.
ABH is classed as a medium-level offence, akin to burglary and theft.
Grievous Bodily Harm (GBH)
In most cases listed above, a fine will be issued for a first offense. Prison time is unlikely unless the perpetrator has prior convictions or the attack was motivated by something such as racism or bigotry, rather than occurring as the result of an interpersonal dispute.
However, in the case of grievous bodily harm (GBH), the party found to be guilty will very likely serve time in prison, with the maximum sentence being life.
GBH is a very serious charge and only applies in cases where serious harm is done to the victim.
There are two specific forms of GBH, although charges can be brought up for a multitude of actions, including knowingly passing on a dangerous STI or inflicting psychological harm upon a person. The two forms of GBH are termed as ‘unlawful wounding or inflicting grievous bodily harm’ and ‘causing wounding/grievous bodily harm with intent to do wounding/grievous bodily harm’.
GBH charges will likely apply to incidents wherein the injured party is wounded (a ‘wound’ being defined as a piercing of the skin). However, this definition is a little bit vague (as ‘wounds’ by this definition may be relatively minor) and the sentencing can reflect this.
Typically, GBH charges include breaking a person’s bones, stabbing them with a knife, disfiguring them or otherwise severely harming them.
In addition, in order to qualify as GBH, the injuries sustained by the victim must be the result of a deliberate action on the part of the attacker. Indeed, even if minor harm was the attacker’s intention, if the injuries resulting from the attack are severe enough, GBH charges can still apply.
In some instances, door supervisors have been brought up on GBH charges. In August of 2020, we reported that a door supervisor in Newcastle had been goaded by a customer, initiating an assault that ended with the customer breaking his leg and being otherwise severely hurt by the doorman. The security officer in question was charged with GBH, lost his job and narrowly avoided going to prison.
A hate crime is defined by the law as
“Any criminal offence which is perceived by the victim or any other person, to be motivated by hostility or prejudice based on a person’s race or perceived race; religion or perceived religion; sexual orientation or perceived sexual orientation; disability or perceived disability and any crime motivated by hostility or prejudice against a person who is transgender or perceived to be transgender.”
Essentially, a hate crime is a criminal action motivated by hatred towards a group that the perpetrator feels the victim may belong to.
The victim does not necessarily have to belong to the group in order for the incident to be classified as a hate crime. For example, a person who is Hindu may find themselves the target of an Islamophobic hate crime, or a person who identifies as heterosexual could still become the target of homophobia if the attackers considered them to be a homosexual. Hate crime definitions are largely based on the perceptions of the perpetrators, as opposed to the actual identities of the victims.
Not every hate crime will amount to criminal charges being placed, but all are considered to be serious in the eyes of the law. To this end, the law classifies a ‘hate
crime’ as having occurred when a law is broken as a result of a person’s prejudice or bigotry and a ‘hate incident’ as having occurred when a person is subject to abusive actions as a result of prejudice.
Hate incidents may overlap with instances of assault,
as well as other crimes, which can potentially see them re-classified as hate crimes. In such cases, harsher sentences may be meted out, as per the dictates of the Criminal Justice Act 2003.
Sexist, homo/transphobic or racial abuse, for example, would only qualify as assault if the target of said abuse felt as if they were going to be attacked. Nevertheless, it does qualify as abuse and there are laws against it. Any/all such incidents can also be formally reported to police.
In most cases, security personnel simply view such abuse as ‘part of the job’ and try to move past it, but it must be stated that such behaviour is never acceptable under any circumstances. All such incidents should be formally recorded and reported as soon as they occur.
In some shameful cases, door supervisors have been actively instructed to enact racist policies. In 2015, a door supervisor contacted The Guardian newspaper and revealed the following:
“We, as a team, were under specific instruction that no groups of black lads were allowed in. There were flashpoints, rightly so, regarding this – but (this is no attempt at justification) we had instructions from the people paying the wages, whose club it was and who selected and chose the (unpublished, obviously) door policy. Sad fact of life I never agreed with but, shamefully, personal feelings were superseded by my need for gainful employment.”
Such blanket bans are regularly applied to Romany and Traveller people, as well as many others. With no specific instructions ever written down (and therefore no evidence of said discrimination), even the most conscientious and fair-minded security officer can find him/herself in a very difficult position. Do they enact racist policies and keep their jobs, or do they refuse and lose them?
Any form of bigotry, discrimination or demonstrable prejudice must be treated as a serious issue. It is bad working practice to ignore such incidents, even if they are relatively minor. You should report everything and everyone who behaves this way, lest such instances worsen and present bigger problems in the future.
What to do if You Have Been Assaulted
As a member of the security industry, it is statistically likely that you will be assaulted while on duty.
There are some alarming statistics in support of this statement. In 2015, the SIA commissioned a violence reduction report. The report brought together over 800 people who occupied various positions within the security industry. The report revealed that 95% of the informants had experienced some form of abuse while on duty, with 70% claiming to have been the targets of physical assault.
Although you may be tempted to dismiss incidents of assault as simply being ‘part of the job’, this may not be enough. Assault, of any kind, is a crime. Being a victim of violent crime can have serious ramifications for your emotional and psychological well-being, as well as your physical health and ability to earn a living.
In fact, studies undertaken by experts at the University of Portsmouth demonstrate that around 40% of security workers show symptoms of anger or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of incidents that occurred at work.
Cliché or not, as the old saying goes ‘it’s OK not to feel OK’ about such things. Human beings do not like being attacked, no animal does – and the emotional, psychological and physiological responses we exhibit upon being attacked are literally coded into our genetic makeup. Accordingly, the effects of incidents of violence can outlast those incidents by decades.
If you have been the victim of an assault, you can confidentially contact Victim Support via their website. You may even be entitled to compensation depending on the circumstances and damage done by the crime.
The Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority (CICA) scheme allows victims of violent crime to claim compensation. Victims are required to have reported the incident to police and have to have received medical care for any injuries sustained. Your case can be strengthened by the use of body worn camera footage, that will give a accurate picture of what took place.
Each case is unique, of course and not every claim results in compensation being awarded. Insurance claims made by your employer on your behalf may also supersede compensation. Nevertheless, compensation may still be an option in some cases.
In any instance, you should be able to seek confidential counselling or other assistance in your local area. These services are free of charge and, as a victim of assault, you will likely be entitled to them. More details are available HERE.
The important thing to remember is that you are not alone, and that help is available. Seeking help is not a sign of weakness, nor does it represent a failure to do your job. In fact, it is the most responsible and professional way you can deal with one of the most unpleasant aspects of a job that requires a great deal of patience, resilience and skill to do properly.