A new consultation is seeking views on how to - finally - reform the archaic Offences against the Person Act 1861.
It is 2014 and the judge is glaring over his pince nez at the accused cowering in the dock. ‘You have been found guilty of not providing your servants with food,’ says m’lud, with a look of withering contempt. ‘That is an offence against the person under the Offences against the Person Act 1861. Take him down.’
The hapless accused could have been found guilty of any number of other equally improbable crimes under the same, largely unreformed act. Impeding a person escaping from a shipwreck, for instance, is still an offence against the person.
As are bigamy, attempted abortion, concealing birth, exposing children to danger, setting a spring gun or mantrap, and causing harm by ‘furious driving’.
And woe betide anyone who, even if the identity of the official is unknown to him, obstructs or assaults a police officer, clergyman, magistrate – or other person in the exercise of his duty preserving a wreck (again).
All this may be set to change soon as the Law Commission embarks on a ‘scoping consultation’ on crimes of violence. It is by no means the first attempt to reform the 1861 act. The Criminal Law Revision Committee published a report in 1980, while the Law Commission had no fewer than four goes at reforming the act between 1985 and 1993.
Most recently, the Home Office issued a consultation paper with draft bill entitled Violence: Reforming the Offences against the Person Act 1861 in 1998.
Why all the dithering? Because the law about crimes of violence is complicated and confusing. The 1861 act often mentions ‘felony’, ‘misdemeanour’ and ‘penal servitude’, for example, words that are no longer commonly used. And what precisely do you understand by ‘grievous’ bodily harm?
For that matter, have you ever heard someone complain that they suffered ‘battery’ late one night on a deserted tube station?
The Law Commission’s scoping consultation paper seeks views on how to reform this outdated act. It describes the existing law in detail and the perceived problems with it. It goes through the proposals in the 1998 draft act and asks whether they are viable or should be modified.
It also discusses the transmission of diseases before asking for views on reforms such as a separate offence of causing minor injury, and keeping assault and battery as two separate offences.
The consultation opened this week. Comments should be submitted by 11 February and the Law Commission will publish a scoping report with more definite proposals in the spring or summer of 2015. Find the consultation here.
Jonathan Rayner is Gazette staff writer