London crime: the acid legislation new this year

As the UK sees a massive rise in youth violence, the legal system has been given new powers to punish those carrying acid: a substance used to maim—and sometimes even kill—others. Here we explore the changes to the law, and why they have been introduced.

  • Last updated Nov 9, 2018 3:03:29 PM
  • Emma Finamore
Image by Brandon Anderson

Acid was recently redefined as a 'highly dangerous weapon' for first time to impose tougher prison sentences— adults caught carrying acid twice or using it to threaten someone will be jailed for a minimum of six months.

New guidelines published by the Sentencing Council are part of efforts to crack down on a spate of attacks using corrosive substances, with more than 400 recorded in England and Wales in the six months to April last year.

Adults convicted of carrying a corrosive substance in public for a second time will be given a minimum six-month jail term, and under-18s handed a four-month detention and training order.

The guidelines, which match those already in place for knives, impose the same minimum sentences for anyone convicted of threatening someone with acid or other offensive weapons.

They define an offensive weapon as “any article made or adapted for causing injury… Or intended for such use”, while a highly dangerous weapon can include corrosive substances whose risk goes “substantially above and beyond”.

“The court must determine whether the weapon is highly dangerous on the facts and circumstances of the case,” the Sentencing Council said.

Two people have so far died as a result of acid attacks, with many more left with life-changing injuries and pressure has been mounting on authorities to act.

Some of the most severe assaults have been carried out using sulphuric acid, but police said dozens of different substances have been used in the UK, including some that are not covered by existing bans and voluntary sales restrictions.

Rachel Kearton, the Assistant Chief Constable of Suffolk Police and National Police Chiefs Council lead on corrosive attacks, warned in December that the UK has one of the world’s highest rates of recorded attacks per capita.

“You’ve got bleach, chemical irritants—anything you might find in a kitchen cupboard,” she said. “We have to bear in mind that these are legitimate substances that often have household uses that are probably owned by all of us.”

Police have so far been powerless to identify corrosive substances, which are frequently concealed in soft drinks bottles and a pilot using litmus paper to test substances was unsuccessful.

Major retailers have signed up to a voluntary ban on sales of dangerous products to under-18s and the Home Office has proposed separate new laws that could bring in punishments for anyone carrying corrosive substances without “a good or lawful reason” and restrict purchases.

The new Sentencing Council guidelines also target knives and other bladed weapons, ensuring people who repeatedly carry them or use them to threaten others are punished severely.

New aggravating factors include the “deliberate humiliation” of victims, including filming them or circulating material on social media, and judges will take into account the defendant’s age, maturity, peer pressure or an “unstable upbringing”.

It comes amid concern over a series of murders in London. A total of 87 people were murdered in the first seven months of 2018, which started with the murder of four young men during New Year’s Eve celebrations.

 The Sentencing Council said changes will ensure consistency across British courts and reflect “Parliament’s concern about the social problem of offenders carrying knives”.

New offences, including threatening with a bladed article or offensive weapon in a public place, possession on school premises or in prisons, have been introduced in recent years and are enforced on a sliding scale of culpability and harm.

Sentencing Council member Rosina Cottage said: “Too many people in our society are carrying knives. f someone has a knife on them, it only takes a moment of anger or drunkenness for it to be taken out and for others to be injured or killed.

“These new guidelines give courts comprehensive guidance to ensure that sentences reflect the seriousness of offending.”

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