Acid attacks: Are tougher sentences the answer?

Acid attack victim Adele Bellis on Pakefield beach. Photo: Nick Butcher

Acid attack victim Adele Bellis on Pakefield beach. Photo: Nick Butcher - Credit: Nick Butcher

Acid attacks have catapulted to the very top of the national news agenda in recent days.

It emerged that five related attacks occurred within a 90-minute period in North London on Thursday evening. A 16-year-old boy has since been charged with numerous offences in connection with the crime spree.

This case has caused significant public disquiet and has brought into focus the scale of the problem of acid attacks in the UK. The number of recorded attacks involving corrosive substances has increased from 228 in 2012 to 601 in 2016, and a spate of attacks in recent months has given the UK one of the highest rates of per capita recorded acid attacks in the world.

Inevitably, there have been calls for tougher sentencing for perpetrators from politicians and survivors (such as Lowestoft's Adele Bellis).

In response, the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, has announced a review of the law in this area looking at existing criminal justice responses, and the regulation of corrosive substances.

The demand for tougher sentences and the calls from politicians of all stripes for a crackdown or 'zero tolerance' approach to acid attackers raises the question: is the law in need of reform?

At the outset it is worth noting that the courts are currently empowered to pass severe sentences to acid attackers.

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Anyone who deliberately throws acid over another person, causing really serious harm, is likely to be charged with intentionally inflicting grievous bodily harm (under section 18 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861): an offence carrying a maximum life sentence.

Moreover, under the Prevention of Crime Act 1953, section one, a person carrying acid with the intention of causing serious harm could face a sentence of up to four years.

Even if intent to cause such serious harm cannot be proven in the circumstances, those possessing corrosive substances as part of a violent criminal endeavor could still face maximum sentence of two years for an offence under Offences Against the Person Act 1861, section 64.

It might be argued that the sentences for those caught unlawfully possessing acid and other corrosive substances should be higher.

And, as the UK Criminal Law Blog suggested, it would be unsurprising if Parliament legislated to increase the maximum sentences for these offences. The Government may also take the route of introducing a mandatory minimum sentence for these possession offences.

Mandatory minimum sentences set a threshold punishment for an offence, which may only be departed from by a sentencing judge if specified exceptional circumstances exist.

Under the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015, the Government introduced a mandatory minimum sentence of six months imprisonment for any second 'knife crime' related offence.

Whilst popular with the public and, in turn, politicians seeking to gain easy electoral capital by appearing tough on crime, mandatory minimums are controversial in that they remove the discretion of the judge to pass a fair sentence to the offender taking into account all of the circumstances of a specific case.

For now, at least, the Government is engaging in a holistic review of how to tackle the problems posed by acid attacks which focuses not only on sentencing law, but also on researching the motivations of acid attackers and assessing the guidance given to police officers on how to deal with acid attacks.

It is hoped that any reforms to the law are measured, emerging as a product of full and informed political debate. A brief scan of the headlines in last weekend's broadsheets suggests that we shouldn't hold our breath.

Joe Purshouse

Lecturer in Criminal Law

University of East Anglia