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There is increasing concern about the use of acid as a weapon. Statistics released by the Metropolitan Police Service in response to Freedom of Information requests suggest that the number of acid attacks in London has risen sharply in recent years. The statistics indicate that noxious or corrosive fluids – including but not limited to acid – were used in London in 454 crimes in 2016, 261 in 2015 and 166 in 2014.

The sale of certain types of acid (and other dangerous chemicals) is governed by the Poisons Act 1972, as amended by the Deregulation Act 2015. The 1972 Act draws a distinction between “regulated” substances and “reportable substances”:

  • Regulated substances – which contain high concentrations of certain chemicals – are now restricted from sale to the general public. If a member of the general public wants to buy any of the regulated substances, they need to apply to the Home Office for a licence to acquire and, from 3 March 2016, to possess and use.
  • Reportable substances can be bought without a licence, but retailers are required to report suspicious transactions and significant losses and thefts.

The aim of the 1972 Act is to strengthen the control of chemicals that can be used to cause harm while still allowing those with a legitimate need for the chemicals to continue their activities.

There is no one specific offence of carrying out an acid attack. People who commit such acts would instead be liable for a more general criminal offence. The Offences against the Person Act 1861 sets out the most relevant offences:

  • Section 18 – Wounding/causing grievous bodily harm with intent (maximum sentence: life imprisonment)
  • Section 20 – Unlawful wounding/inflicting grievous bodily harm (maximum sentence: five years)
  • Section 29 – Sending, throwing or using explosive or corrosive substance or noxious thing with intent to do grievous bodily harm (maximum sentence: life imprisonment)

Possession of acid in a public place with intent to use it to cause harm could also be prosecuted as possession of an offensive weapon under section 1 of the Prevention of Crime Act 1953.

Following a recent spate of acid attacks, there have been calls for the Government to introduce further restrictions on the sale of acid (particularly sulphuric acid), and to criminalise the possession of acid without good excuse (in a similar way to the current law on knives).

In October 2017 the Home Office launched a consultation on offensive and dangerous weapons, which included the following proposals on acid:

  • Plans for a new offence of possessing a corrosive substance in public;
  • Plans for a new offence preventing the sale of “the most harmful corrosive substances” to under 18s; and
  • Plans to use the existing powers in the Poisons Act 1972 to reclassify sulphuric acid as a regulated substance.

The consultation closed on 9 December 2017 and the Home Office is currently analysing feedback.

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