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Acid and other corrosive substance attacks: interim guidance

Issued: 31 July 2017
Revised: 17 August 2017


Acid and other corrosive substances (for example, bleach or ammonia) may be used as weapons to attack victims. The substances may be used in connection with hate crime, so-called honour based violence, domestic abuse, and by gangs in retribution.

Acid and corrosive substance attacks have a devastating effect on victims. And when thrown on to the victim's body - usually their face - cause the skin and flesh to melt, sometimes exposing and dissolving the bones below. The long-term consequences of acid or corrosive substance attacks may include blindness, permanent scarring of the face and body, and social and psychological difficulties.

Acid and other corrosive substances are becoming a preferred weapon of offenders carrying out criminal activity, due to it being easy to obtain, cheap and difficult to trace back to the perpetrator.

Public Interest Factors

Where the evidence discloses that the defendant has used acid or a corrosive substance to cause injury to a person, there will be a number of compelling public interest factors in favour of prosecution. These include, but are not limited to:

  • a conviction is likely to result in a significant sentence;
  • the offence is widespread in the area where it was committed;
  • evidence that the offence was premeditated;
  • prosecution would have a significant positive impact on maintaining community confidence;
  • a culture of carrying weapons encourages violence may lead to more serious criminal behaviour.

Depending on the facts, there may also be other important public interest factors supporting prosecution, for example the offence was committed in a school, or the defendant was motivated by hostility towards another individual or group.

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Selecting the Charge

The most appropriate charges are likely to be drawn from the following:

  • Possession of an offensive weapon (section 1 Prevention of Crime Act 1951) - 4 years' maximum imprisonment;
  • Possession of offensive weapon on school premises (section 139A(2) Criminal Justice Act 1988) - 4 years' maximum imprisonment;
  • Threatening with an offensive weapon in a public place (section 1A Prevention of Crime Act 1953) - 4 years' maximum imprisonment;
  • Threatening with an offensive weapon on school premises or in a public place (section 139AA Criminal Justice Act 1988) - 4 years' maximum imprisonment;
  • Throwing (or applying) corrosive fluid on a person with intent to burn, maim, disfigure or disable or to do some grievous bodily harm (section 29 Offences against the Person Act 1861) - maximum sentence: life; and
  • Causing grievous bodily harm with intent (section 18 Offences against the Person Act 1861) - maximum sentence: life.

Where there is sufficient evidence to prove an offence of carrying an offensive weapon in a public place or school in addition to another offence, it is good practice to charge both offences, even where the weapon has been used during the commission of the other offence. This will ensure that the prosecution case and the basis of any pleas are clear. It will also allow an offender to be brought to justice for an offence of possession, and allow the court to order the forfeiture and destruction of the weapon if the defendant is acquitted of the other offence. Additionally, if convicted of both offences, the court may impose consecutive sentences.

Prosecutors are referred to the guidance about Offensive Weapons, Knives, Bladed and Pointed Articles, as well as the Offences against the Person Charging Standard. Prosecutors should also note the following when considering Offensive Weapons charges in connection with acid or other corrosive substance attacks:

  • Possession of an Offensive Weapon (section 1 Prevention of Crime Act 1953);
  • Possession of Offensive Weapon on school premises (section 139(A)2 Criminal Justice Act 1988

Section 1 of the Prevention of Crime Act (PCA) 1953 prohibits the possession in any public place of an offensive weapon without lawful authority or reasonable excuse. The term "offensive weapon" is defined as: "any article made or adapted for use to cause injury to the person, or intended by the person having it with him for such use". (See guidance about Offensive Weapons, Knives, Bladed and Pointed Articles).

In Williamson [1978] 67 Cr. App. R. 35, LJ Lane set out that section 1(4) PCA provides three categories of weapons. The first category is the weapon which is made for causing injury to the person - offensive weapon per se. The second type of weapon is one not made for that purpose but adapted for it, such as a potato with a razor blade inserted into it. The third type of weapon, is one neither made nor adapted but is one which is intended by the person having it with him for the purpose of causing personal injury to someone, (emphasis added).

The carrying of acid or other corrosive substance is likely to fall into this final category within the section, where it can be proved that it is intended to cause injury. Intent to cause injury can be inferred from the context of the surrounding circumstances, and in particular prosecutors should consider:

  • Whether the acid has been transferred into a container that it is easier to carry and / or easier to use as a weapon - for instance is it now easier to squirt or throw
  • If the acid is still in its original container, regard should be paid to the circumstances in which it is carried - for instance is it with other household shopping, or in a bag with a balaclava late at night

Any background information that the police can obtain may also be valuable in this regard, for instance any relevant texts or social media evidence relating to threats of the carrying of acid. Any explanation provided by the suspect as to intent of lawful authority / reasonable excuse should be carefully scrutinised. It may also be worth considering what led the police to find the acid on the suspect, and whether there may be other witnesses who saw or heard anything that from which intent to cause injury could be inferred.

  • Threatening with an Offensive Weapon in a public place (section 1A PCA 1953);
  • Threatening with an Offensive Weapon on school premises (section 139AA Criminal Justice Act 1988)

The prosecution must prove that the defendant had a relevant article in a public place / school premises, unlawfully and intentionally threatened another person with it, and did so in a way that there was an immediate risk of serious physical harm to that other person.

"Serious physical harm" is defined as grievous bodily harm.

Useful Case Law on Offensive Weapons

Patterson v Block [1984] - carrying a weapon for defence can still amount to intent to cause injury

The defendant was tried for possessing an offensive weapon (s1(1) PCA 1953). The weapon, a lock knife, was not alleged by the prosecution to be offensive per se. To prove the necessary intent to injure a person the prosecution were only able to establish that the defendant carried the knife to defend himself. The justices felt inclined to infer from this that if the occasion arose for the defendant to use the knife to defend himself he would use it to cause injury to a person and accordingly convicted him. On appeal, Kerr LJ said that it was common ground that this was not a weapon made or adapted for use for causing injury to the person and that consequently the defendant could only be convicted if the justices were satisfied that he carried it intending to use it to injure a person. The question was whether that intention could properly be inferred where the defendant carried the weapon to defend himself. The ordinary use of the knife was such that even if it was used as a defensive weapon injury might be inflicted upon a person and accordingly the justices were entitled to draw the inference they did that the defendant had the knife intending to cause injury.

R v Hopkins [1996] - bottle of acid for protection is so serious only custodial sentence appropriate

The defendant, a minicab driver, had a lemon juice bottle containing a solution of 36 per cent hydrochloric acid, which he admitted carrying for protection. Hopkins pleaded guilty to having an offensive weapon (section 1(1) PCA 1953) and was sentenced to 6 months' imprisonment. On appeal, it was held the offence was so serious that only a custodial sentence could be justified. The bottle had not been used and the appellant had some genuine ground for fear as to his personal safety. A sentence of three months' was substituted.

Sentencing - Offensive Weapons

Unlike section 1 PCA 1953, where a person is convicted of an offence contrary to section 1A, the court must (in the case of an adult) impose a custodial sentence for at least 6 months. Where the youth is aged 16 or 17 years, the court must impose a Detention and Training Order of at least 4 months.

Prosecutors are referred to the Sentencing Guidelines Council's Possession of bladed article / offensive weapon, contained within the Magistrates' Court Sentencing Guidelines. A guideline for offensive weapons is yet to be published by the Sentencing Council following a consultation that closed in January 2017.

The consultation provides an example of the defendant having a spray bottle containing sulphuric acid while outside of the victim's house, where he said "it was for her, to take away that pretty smile from her face". This offence falls within the category of "highly dangerous weapon", and is identified to be "high culpability, high harm". The consultation identifies this as an A1 offence with a starting point of 1 year 6 months' within a range of 1 year - 2 years 6 months'. The offence is "high culpability" as it was committed using a highly dangerous weapon.

The consultation guideline identifies offences involving a prolonged incident, serious alarm / distress, committed at a school or other place where vulnerable people may be present, committed in prison or other premises where there may be a risk of serious disorder as being captured by "Harm category 1". The starting point is 2 years' imprisonment, and the category range is 1 year 6 months - 3 years' imprisonment.

Throwing acid or corrosive substance with intent to do GBH (section 29 Offences Against the Person Act 1861) Causing GBH with intent (section 18 Offences Against the Person Act 1861)

Section 29 of the OAPA 1861: "Whosoever shall unlawfully and maliciously ... cast or throw ... or otherwise apply any corrosive fluid ... with intent ... to burn, maim, disfigure or disable any person, or to do some grievous bodily harm to any person, shall, whether any bodily injury be effected or not, be guilty of [an offence] ...."

The section 29 offence requires proof that the conduct was done "maliciously" and in addition, there must be proof of an intent to burn, maim, disfigure, or disable any person or to do some grievous bodily harm. However where that is proven the offence is committed whether the intended injury to the victim occurs or not. A charge can therefore be preferred whether or not injury is caused. If injury is caused, and acid attacks tend to result in really serious injury, a choice of charge therefore exists between section 29 or section 18 of causing grievous bodily harm with intent to do grievous bodily harm.

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Useful Case Law on s29 OAPA 1861

Meaning of "disable"

The word "disable" must be given its ordinary wide meaning and should not be limited to permanent disablement - R v Selvin James (1980) 70 Cr. App. R. 215.

Lack of long term injury

 Section 29 can be useful where the injuries caused did not result in long term damage (really serious injury) but where the required intent can be proved. In R v Adrian Kuti (1994) 15 Cr. App. R. (S.) 260 the appellant had been convicted of throwing a corrosive fluid with intent to do grievous bodily harm where he squirted a solution of 19 per cent ammonia in the face of the victim due to a driving dispute. The victim was taken to hospital but there was no long term damage. The jury found that the appellant had an intention to cause really serious harm and an alternative count of ABH was left to lie on the file. The court said "The carrying of ammonia is something which cannot possibly be justified. The placing of it in a container from which it can be squirted is a dangerous pursuit, and squirting it into the eyes has immense potentiality for harm."

Sentencing - Offences Against the Person

The maximum sentence for sections 18 and 29 is life imprisonment. They are "specified violent offences" for the purposes of the dangerous offender provisions under the Criminal Justice Act 2003 Pt 12 Ch 5 (ss 224–236). In the domestic violence case of R v Riley and others, sulphuric acid was thrown in the victim's face causing serious chemical burns to the right side of her face and body so that she required skin grafts and psychotherapy. She lost her right ear, needed reconstructive surgery, and was permanently scarred on the outside of the face and on the upper chest. Life imprisonment was imposed with a minimum term of 13 years'.

In R v Midmore [2017] EWCA Crim 533 the defendant was convicted of causing GBH with intent. He threw sulphuric acid into the victim's face. She was left blind in one eye and partially sighted in the other. She required several skin grafts and was left with scarring to her face, damage to her neck and arms and damage to her eyelids which would not close properly and would probably cause repeated infection. An extended sentence of 20 years comprising a custodial term of 15 years' imprisonment and an extension period of 5 years' was imposed.

There are no sentencing guidelines for the offence of applying a corrosive liquid with intent but the guidelines for section 18 of the OAPA 1861 are applicable - R v Riley [2017] EWCA Crim 243. Generally acid attacks will fall within category 1 with a starting point of 12 years' custody within a range of 9 to 16 years. The on-going effect on the victim is an aggravating factor that must be addressed in preparing such cases for prosecution and prosecutors must ensure that a victim personal statement is sought in all such cases together with relevant medical reports.

The defendants in R v Isaac [2016] EWCA Crim 1907 were charged with applying a corrosive fluid with intent to burn, maim, disfigure or disable, or to do some GBH. They were sent for trial at the Crown Court. One of the defendants shook the contents from a sports drinking bottle towards the right side of the victim's face in a case of mistaken identity causing burns to his feet, hands, arms and upper torso which required skin grafts. The 19 year old was sentenced to 10 years' detention in a young offender institution and the youth received six years' detention.

As both s29 and s18 OAPA 1861 are punishable with life imprisonment, offences that are committed by youths will fall to be considered as "grave crimes".

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Victim Personal Statements

 The police are required to ask for a Victim Personal Statement  in all cases involving an acid or corrosive substances attack. 

Community Impact Statements

The police are encouraged to prepare a Community Impact Statement in all cases involving an acid or corrosive substances attack, in order to inform how such attacks affect communities.

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