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The criminal offence of assault and how liability is established

What is the criminal offence of Assault and how is liability established?

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Assault is a common law offence, defined in Fagan v MPC as when a defendant ‘intentionally or recklessly causes the victim to apprehend immediate unlawful personal violence’.

The Actus reus of assault is firstly that the ‘victim apprehends’, which does not require fear (R v Lamb). Second, the violence must be immediate, rather than a future threat, but the court tends to interpret immediacy broadly (Virgo, 1997; R v Constanza). Thirdly, there must be a fear of unlawful personal violence, which is held to be any non-consensual contact (R v Ireland), whether or not the apprehended violence would be serious (Child and Ormerod, 2015). It should be noted that the Actus reus can be satisfied through words alone (R v Constanza), and also may be negated through words, as demonstrated in Tuberville v Savage; the statement ‘if it were not assize-time, I would not take such language from you’ negated the defendant’s assault.

The Mens rea of assault is that the defendant intended to or was reckless as to causing the victim’s apprehension of unlawful force. Recklessness involves a consideration of whether the defendant recognised the possibility of their actions causing the victim’s apprehension of unlawful force (R v Venna).


Child, J and Ormerod, D., (2015) Essentials of Criminal Law. Oxford University Press
Virgo, G., (1997) Offences Against the Person – Do-It-Yourself Law Reform CLJ 56 251
Fagan v MPC [1969] 1 QB 439
R v Lamb [1967] 2 QB 981
R v Constanza [1997] Crim LR 576
R v Ireland [1998] AC 147
Tuberville v Savage [1669] 1 Mood Rep 3
R v Venna [1976] QB 421