Assault is a crime which is an attack on another person. Assault can take the following forms:-

• A physical attack on a person involving the use of a body or weapon (eg punching, kicking, stabbing or even spitting).

• Indirect assault where a situation is deliberately set up to cause harm or fear.

• Gestures towards another which are physically threatening where a person anticipates being harmed (eg, the pointing of a gun at someone). Sometimes it is reasonable to use some physical force towards another person provided that the force used is reasonable and not excessive. Examples are as follows:-

• Chastisement

Parents may be entitled to use reasonable force towards their young children to control and discipline them. Nevertheless, a parent has no right to use excessive force. There are cases where a parent has been convicted of assault by slapping a child on the face and knocking the child over. 

A schoolteacher or any other person having temporary control of a child may also have a right to chastise the child. Corporal punishment in schools is no longer appropriate. Again, only reasonable force can be used towards the child and usually in a situation where a child requires to be brought under control and disciplined.

• Protection of a person or property

In some situations, reasonable force can be used to protect yourself or another person. As long as the force used is not excessive this may not amount to an assault. There must be no alternative means of avoiding the danger. For example, the owner or occupier of land is entitled to use reasonable force to eject a trespasser from the land.

• Prevention of Crime

The most common example of force being used to prevent a crime being committed is where Police Officers use force to arrest a person. Again, the force used by the Police must be reasonable although the conduct of the person being arrested and the whole circumstances are taken into account in determining what is the reasonable force in any given situation. People other than Police Officers may also be entitled to use reasonable force to detain people whom they suspect may be committing a serious crime. This is often referred to as a “citizen’s arrest”. There must be more than just a suspicion that somebody has committed an offence for a citizen’s arrest to be made.

• Restraint of others

People such as Prison Officers or Nurses may be entitled to us reasonable force towards others to prevent disruption or the like. In some cases, Prison Officers may have to use some force to control aggressive prisoners to prevent the potential for violence or riot. Nurses may be forced to deal with hysterical behaviour on the part of patients to prevent disruption to other patients although the force which can be used is limited.

Violence in sport appears to be accepted up to certain limits provided that the violence occurs within the rules of that particular sport. In other words, a football player who punches a member of the opposing team during a game will almost certainly have committed an assault on the basis that punching someone is not within the rules of the game of football.

What about reckless behaviour towards another – is that assault?

Reckless acts which cause injury to another person, or which create a risk of injury, are also punishable as criminal offences. There is no need to prove that there was any injury at all. The test is that the accused person acted in total disregard of the consequences of his or her actions. The degree of reckless behaviour must be severe. Accordingly, carelessness or negligent behaviour would not normally amount to a criminal offence. An example of reckless behaviour might be if someone throws a bottle from the upper floor of a block of flats causing severe injury to a person on the ground below where the person was aware of the risk of injury and had been warned not to throw the bottle.