Acid attacks are a pandemic the law is failing to treat

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By Zoe Bowler on

Academics and MPs flock to recommend new laws, but will they make a difference?

It has been referred to as “torture in a bottle”. Every time we switch on the news there is another acid attack, a freedom of information request from the Met Police showing that in 2016 alone there were 431 attacks in London. This has sharply risen over the past four years and something, therefore, needs to be done to combat this.

Yesterday, Arthur Collins (pictured) was sentenced to 20 years in prison for spraying acid over multiple people in a nightclub in Dalston, East London. Collins is the ex-boyfriend of reality TV star Ferne McCann, who has since given birth to his child. Fourteen people were scarred for life in the attack, three left temporarily blinded.

Just last month, an attack was carried out in Walthamstow on a delivery driver. Muhammed Nawshad Kamal was approached by two people, police said, who attempted to steal his moped. Their weapon of choice was acid, throwing the substance in his face. He was left fighting for his life and it is likely to go blind from the incident.

Approximately 30 minutes after this horrific attack, in Tottenham another delivery driver was attacked in a similar fashion, however the acid was sprayed in his face.

What does the law currently say about these horrendous attacks?

Section 18 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 makes it an offence to wound or cause grievous bodily harm (GBH) with intent. Section 20 of the same act covers GBH without such a strong intent. Those carrying out attacks such as that on Kamal, which leave the victim with serious injuries, can be charged with this crime. If the attack leaves minor injuries the offender can be charged with assault occasioning actual bodily harm (ABH) under section 47 of the same act. ABH carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison, and GBH a life sentence.

Section 29 of the above act specifically deals with throwing corrosive fluid on a person, however this is rarely used. Under section 1 of the Prevention of Crime Act 1953 it is also an offence to “carry an offensive weapon without lawful authority or reasonable excuse”, which can carry a maximum sentence of four years. However, those who carry a corrosive substance are unlikely to be arrested or charged under this act as intent to use it as a weapon must be shown.

These sentences, however, seem to do nothing to deter criminals from carrying out these attacks. Although there has been (and continues to be) a current surge in acid attacks, they actually date back to Victorian times.

In 1834, it was reported that a male had been hung for throwing vitriol “wilfully and maliciously” on the face of a fellow servant while he slept. There is no current police intelligence as to why there has been such a dramatic increase, but if we explore the reasons it may be easier to stop the rise in these crimes.

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One reason may be how easy it is to access products which contain acid. Although there are certain chemicals which are regulated and require a valid licence to purchase, there are other products which are not. Household bleach, for example, is a corrosive substance which when exposed to the skin can cause chemical burns and loss of pigmentation in the skin. Household cleaning chemicals such as this have no age restriction on purchasing and are readily available at almost every convenience store and supermarket. Stronger substances such as sulphuric acid cost on average less than £10 and can be easily purchased online with no checks, or from a hardware store if you are over 18. Sulphuric acid can burn through both the outer skin and the flesh under your skin.

Another reason for the increase may be because carrying and using acid is easier and likely to attract a lesser sentence than carrying and using a knife. Simon Harding, a criminologist, explains that “the charges are more serious if you are caught with a knife and the tariff for prison sentences are much higher”. He added:

“Acid is likely to attract a ‘GBH with intent’ charge while using a knife is more likely to lead to the attacker being charged with attempted murder.”

Acid attacks are also quicker to commit and a harder offence to prove when compared to knife crime as they rarely leave DNA evidence. Acid is also easier to conceal in a plastic bottle and during a search officers may mistake the substance for water, unlike a knife which is harder to conceal in a search. This may be why acid is becoming, to some, “a weapon of first choice”.

Harding believes that to tackle the problem of acid attacks the government needs to consider three elements: that acid is too readily available; that sentencing should be in line with knife crimes; and education of the effects of acid attacks needs to be provided.

Many people have called for stricter laws and restrictions on the purchase of corrosive chemicals. This may resolve the issue of acid being readily available. Jaf Shah from Acid Survivors Trust International and Katie Piper, an acid victim, are two of the people campaigning for tougher restrictions. It is thought that by making corrosive chemicals only available under licence and by a card that is traceable acid will be less easy to purchase. Ex-Lib Dem leader Tim Farron also believes that to prevent the crime “we need to look at how best to restrict the availability of acid”.

Will the government take heed? The Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, has announced a crackdown on these attacks with plans to outlaw carrying acid in public without a good reason and sales to under 18s to be banned. This regulation however may be hard to uphold on household cleaning products and is likely to cause inconvenience to those purchasing it for legitimate reasons. Home Office minister Sarah Newton agrees that regulation may be difficult as “these chemicals are under everyone’s kitchen sinks”.

Labour MP Stephen Timms believes that the way to prevent these attacks is to alter the legislation to be in line with that of knife crimes, by making possessing sulphuric acid on the street an offence. The minister for crime, Sarah Newton, has confirmed that although judges already have the power to give a life sentence to the more serious cases of GBH they intend to educate the CPS and review sentencing “to make sure that people understand the powers they’ve got, understand the measures that can be in place and making sure that those penalties truly reflect the severity of the injuries.”

However, is it realistic that these changes will prevent another attack?

The changes in law will take a long time to debate and implement and it may be hard to get sentencing consistent with that of knife crimes, but making these changes may reduce the frequency of them. Also, criminals are always likely to find a new weapon of choice once the laws become tough on acid and so it may be better to focus on the victims and supporting the NHS through their treatment.

Zoe Bowler graduated from the University of Brighton in 2017 with a first-class degree in law and criminology. She is the recipient of three academic prizes and has an avid interest in family law.

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