The Salisbury Chemical Weapon Attack

On Sunday 4th March 2018 Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found on a park bench in Salisbury, due to concerns as to their wellbeing an ambulance was called and they were both admitted to Salisbury NHS TrustHospital. A short time later a major incident was declared as fears spread that the incident was linked to a chemical weapons attack.

A police officer was also hospitalised due to apparent exposure to chemicals.

The full circumstances will not be known for some time, but what we do know is that Sergei Skripal was a Russian double-agent who had settled in the United Kingdom following a prisoner exchange.

In a remarkable statement to the House of Commons on the 12th March, the Prime Minister stated:

‘It is now clear that Mr Skripal and his daughter were poisoned with a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia. This is part of a group of nerve agents known as ‘Novichok’. Based on the positive identification of this chemical agent by world-leading experts at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down; our knowledge that Russia has previously produced this agent and would still be capable of doing so; Russia’s record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations; and our assessment that Russia views some defectors as legitimate targets for assassinations; the Government has concluded that it is highly likely that Russia was responsible for the act against Sergei and Yulia Skripal. Mr Speaker, there are therefore only two plausible explanations for what happened in Salisbury on the 4th of March. Either this was a direct act by the Russian State against our country. Or the Russian government lost control of this potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others.’

What is ‘Novichok’

Novichok is a powerful ‘nerve agent’ that causes ‘involuntary contraction of all muscles. This can lead to respiratory and cardiac arrest (as the victim’s heart and diaphragm muscles no longer function normally) and finally death from heart failure or suffocation as copious fluid secretions fill the victim’s lungs’.

What Offences Have Been Committed?

Assuming that the Skripal’s were the victims of a chemical attack, a number of offences might come in to play. It should be emphasised however that little is known as to the  facts and actual charging decisions will depend on those, and of course being able to apprehend a suspect in the first place.

Attempted Murder

This requires a specific intent to kill. Given the deadly nature of the chemical and the fact that anyone handling it is unlikely to be ignorant of that fact, it is hard to envisage that administering the substance could have been done with anything other than an intent to kill. Even if the intent was only to kill Mr Skirpal and not his daughter and/or the police officer, under the concept of transferred malice the prosecution would be able to confidently proceed by charging two and perhaps even three counts of attempted murder. The maximum penalty available is life imprisonment, and it is highly likely that this would be the penalty imposed.

Grievous Bodily Harm

This charge, contrary to section 18 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 likewise requires a specific intent, but this time to wound or cause grievous bodily harm. Such harm can be caused by ‘…any means whatsoever’, so is particularly suited to a chemical attack which may not have involved an ‘assault’ (see Wilson [1984] AC 242; Burstow [1998] AC 147). The offence carries life imprisonment.

Administering a noxious substance

Sections 22, 23 and 24 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 provide for three possible offences, with section 23 being the most likely. Section 23 provides:

‘Whosoever shall unlawfully and maliciously administer to or cause to be administered to or taken by any other person any poison or other destructive or noxious thing, so as thereby to endanger the life of such person, or so as thereby to inflict upon such person any grievous bodily harm, shall be guilty…’

The maximum penalty is ten years imprisonment. This is substantially less than the life imprisonment that is available for the offences above, and may not be a charging option (but see Kennedy (No 2) [2007] UKHL 38 at [9]-[10]) in relation to the police officer due to the requirement to ‘administer’ (or cause to), or be ‘taken’ (again dependent on the circumstances). For the meaning of ‘noxious’ see, for example, Marcus [1981] 1 WLR 774.

Chemical Weapons Act 1996

Section 2 provides:

No person shall—

(a) use a chemical weapon;
(b) develop or produce a chemical weapon;
(c) have a chemical weapon in his possession;
(d) participate in the transfer of a chemical weapon;
(e) engage in military preparations, or in preparations of a military nature, intending to use a chemical weapon.

There are some defences, but none are likely to be engaged in this case. Section 2 is a particularly convenient charge as it involves none of the difficulties mentioned above. However, this is likely to be charged in addition to, not instead of, substantive charges relating to the specific harm caused to individuals. There is limited extra-territorial extent provided by section 3 of the Act.

The offence carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

Section 11 of the Act could also be used against any other person who permitted premises to be used.

Other offences

There may well be other offences relating to any importation of the chemicals used.


It is unlikely that this attack will meet the definition of a terrorist act, see Section 1 Terrorism Act 2000:

In this Act “terrorism” means the use or threat of action where—

(a) the action falls within subsection (2), [which it would in this case]

(b) the use or threat is designed to influence the government or an international governmental organisation] or to intimidate the public or a section of the public, and

(c) the use or threat is made for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause.

What about diplomatic immunity?

If the person or persons behind the attack have the relevant diplomatic protections they will avoid prosecution unless their government offers a waiver. If this is a State sponsored attack then this would be inconceivable.