“The Sharp End” – Knife crime, the law and its impact in numbers


“The Sharp End” – Knife crime, the law and its impact in numbers

Goldsmith Chambers corporate photography London

Anthony Metzer QC
Jamie Brotherton
6 November 2020

In May 2020, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police Service, Dame Cressida Dick, stated that the UK’s national lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic had provided a period of crime relief in the capital.1 According to the Commissioner, in the six weeks prior to 13 May 2020, knife crime in London fell by 50% compared to the same period the previous year, whilst stab wounds among people under the age of 25 decreased by 69%.

This dramatic reduction carried through into the figures for June 2019 to June 2020, where for the first time since 2014, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported a 1% national decrease in offences involving knives and sharp instruments.2 In London and the West Midlands this translated to a 6% and 11% decrease respectively across the same metric. More staggeringly, when comparing the period of April-June 2019 against April-June 2020, the ONS figures confirmed that the latter saw a 44% decrease in knife and offensive weapon crime in London and a 31% decrease in the West Midlands.3 Despite such promising results, the ONS candidly noted that these regional and national downward trends, “can be wholly attributed to the large decrease seen in the lockdown period”.

Illustrating the ONS’ verdict, knife crime was once again brought sharply into the public consciousness soon after the majority of national lockdown restrictions had been lifted. In September 2020, a 90-minute fatal stabbing spree took place in Birmingham in which the suspect, Zephaniah McLeod, now stands accused of one count of murder and seven counts of attempted murder. More recently still, a 17-year old boy was stabbed to death in Walthamstow, northeast London on 24 October 2020.

Although it is still early to assess whether these recent cases form part of an upward trend in knife-related violence, an analysis of pre-pandemic figures lends weight to the view that this type of offence was merely in abatement during lockdown and may increase when Covid-19 related restrictions ease. By way of example, between March 2019 and March 2020, just prior to the UK’s lockdown, the ONS reported a 6% national increase in offences involving knives and sharp instruments. This translated to a 7% increase in London and a maintenance of the previous years’ figures in the West Midlands,4 as opposed to the dramatic crime-rate reductions seen during lockdown. In short, pandemic aside, knife crime was climbing in the UK by March 2020 and was 51% higher than when records began in 2011.

This rise is multifactorial, with commentators attributing the escalation to income inequality and deprivation, school exclusion, adverse childhood environments and changes in the illicit drug trade.5 The House of Lords in a 2019 research briefing, also considered austerity, a 15% fall in police officer numbers, social media recruitment by gangs and drill music inciting violence, as all playing a role in the explosion in knife-related violence.6

The Law and Sentencing

Parliament’s response to the previous decade’s startling rise in knife crime was the introduction of the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015.7 This introduced the so called ‘second strike’ rule, which establishes that those convicted of a second ‘relevant offence’ of possessing a knife or offensive weapon in a public place or a school, would receive a minimum mandatory custodial sentence. A ‘relevant offence’ includes those offences relating to the possession or threatened use of a knife, bladed article or offensive weapon.8

Aside from the introduction of the ‘second strike’ rule, these laws also marked the first occasion (other than murder) in which the courts were obliged to hand down minimum mandatory custodial sentences to young people; those below the age of 18.

New sentencing guidelines introduced in 2018 further consolidated the law on the subject, affirming a maximum custodial sentence of four years for knife and offensive weapon crimes. It also set out a starting point for offences of possession, of being between a community sentence and six months’ custody for a first offence, depending on its categorisation and severity. Those of threatening another with a knife or offensive weapon, however, are treated more harshly, carrying a starting point of between six months’ and 15-months’ custody for a first offence.

For ‘second strike’ offences, courts are required to impose the following:

  • at least six months’ imprisonment for an offender aged 18 or over when convicted;
  • at least a four-month detention and training order for 16 and 17-year olds;
  • no minimum mandatory sentence provision for those below the age of 16.

Notably, courts were afforded a discretion to not impose the above mandatory sentences for possession offences, if doing so would be unjust in all the circumstances. Courts are required in this respect to consider any strong personal mitigation of the defendant, whether there is a strong prospect of rehabilitation and whether custody will result in a significant impact on others. This discretion and consequent ability to impose lower custodial sentences or divert people away from the penal system, was not afforded to the courts for offences involving threatening another with a knife or offensive weapon.

Goldsmith Chambers corporate photography London

Anthony Metzer QC

Anthony Metzer QC is Head of Goldsmith Chambers, taking silk in 2013 and practises primarily in crime, civil actions against the police, immigration and inquests. He is a Deputy High Court Judge and also sits as a part-time immigration Judge, previously in the First-tier Tribunal and now in the Upper Tribunal, and also in the War Pension and Armed Forces Compensation Tribunal.


Jamie Brotherton

Jamie Brotherton is a pupil barrister at Goldsmith Chambers as well as serving officer in the Royal Navy. Upon completion of his criminal pupillage, he will return to the armed forces where he will be instructed in both prosecution and defence work in Military Court Centres, as well provide legal advice to military commanders.

The Offensive Weapons Act 2019

The Offensive Weapons Act 2019 (the Act), which is largely yet to come into force, will further update the law by creating a number of new offences designed to bring corrosive substances onto a similar statutory footing with knives and offensive weapons. This will include restrictions on the sale and delivery of them, as well as restricting their possession and threatened use in public places. Sentencing powers for both first-time and ‘second strike’ possession offences mirror those for knives and offensive weapons.

In addition, the Act will for the first-time create offences of threatening a person with knives, bladed articles, offensive weapons and corrosive substances in private places. Sentencing powers for first offences will mirror those for knives and offensive weapons in public places, although the Act does not include minimum mandatory sentences for ‘second strike’ cases.

Another feature of the Act is to lower the burden of proof to that of the reasonable person test, for offences of threatening a person with a knife or offensive weapon. This lowering of the threshold ties a key ingredient of the test to an objective standard, potentially opening the door to an increasing number of convictions in this area.

Furthermore, the Act will introduce Knife Crime Prevention Orders for young people. These can be made on a civil application or on conviction. Similar to Criminal Behaviour Orders, they allow a number of requirements to be imposed on the individual such as curfews, exclusion zones and restrictions on the use of the internet, with the purpose of steering young people away from knife crime.


As noted above, despite the increasing severity of the law to tackle knife crime, the UK has seen a year-on-year rise since 2014, with 46,265 knife or sharp instrument offences being recorded in the year to March 2020 – an increase of 6% from March 2019. In addition, in this same period, the criminal justice system dealt with a 3% rise in total knife and offensive weapon possession offences, its highest figure in a decade.9

The ONS10 however, credits the 3% rise in possession offences in part to targeted police action. In particular, it highlights the government’s easing of restrictions on the police’s ability to stop and search the public through the use of section 60 powers, which allows officers to stop and search without the need for reasonable suspicion.11

As harsher measures were introduced, the overall number of convictions for both first-time and ‘second strike’ offenders increased between March 2019 and March 2020,12 although youth crime was an exception. The number of offences involving a knife or offensive weapon committed by children fell by 1% during this period, its first decrease since 2014. In addition, just over half the number of children convicted were handed community sentences, whilst the number sentenced to immediate custody decreased from 14% to 12%.13

Although this trend in relation to children is a positive outlier compared with the overall increases in knife and offensive weapon crime, with the threat of rising levels of unemployment, homelessness and trauma sparked by the Covid-19 pandemic,14 it remains to be seen whether these encouraging results will be replicated in the coming year.

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  1. Fiona Hamilton, ‘Crime falls and police arrest gangsters hiding from coronavirus’ The Times (London, 1 May 2020) https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/crime-tumbles-and-police-arrest-gangsters-hiding-from-the-virus-ztd9c89f0 Accessed 30 October 2020.
  2. Office for National Statistics, Crime in England and Wales: year ending June 2020 (28 October 2020) https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/bulletins/crimeinenglandandwales/yearendingjune2020 Accessed 30 October 2020.
  3. Office for National Statistics, Crime in England and Wales: Police Force Area data tables: year ending June 2020 edition of this dataset (28 October 2020) https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/datasets/policeforceareadatatables Accessed 30 October 2020.
  4. Office for National Statistics, Crime in England and Wales: year ending March 2020 (17 July 2020) https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/bulletins/crimeinenglandandwales/yearendingmarch2020#knife-or-sharp-instrument-offences Accessed 30 October 2020.
  5. Nabeela S. Malik; Beau Munoz; Cynthia de Courcey et al, ‘Violence-related knife injuries in a UK city; epidemiology and impact on secondary care resources’ (2020) 1(1) The Lancet. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/eclinm/article/PIIS2589-5370(20)30040-7/fulltext Accessed 30 October 2020.
  6. House of Lords, Knife crime: Policy and Causes (Library Briefing, 2019) https://lordslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/lln-2019-0061/ (Accessed 30 October 2020).
  7. Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 section 28 and schedule 5, amending Prevention of Crime Act 1953 sections 1 and 2 and Criminal Justice Act 1988 section 139.
  1. Prevention of Crime Act 1953 s 1 or 1A; Criminal Justice Act 1988 s 139, 139A or 139AA
  2. Office for National Statistics, Crime in England and Wales: year ending March 2020 (17 July 2020) https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/bulletins/crimeinenglandandwales/yearendingmarch2020#knife-or-sharp-instrument-offences Accessed 30 October 2020.
  3. Ibid
  4. Michael Herford, ‘Police Powers: Stop, Search and Arrest (Legal Lifelines, 22 July 2020) https://articles.legallifelines.co.uk/police-powers-stop-search-arrest/ Accessed 30 October 2020.
  5. Ministry of Justice, Knife and Offensive Weapon Sentencing Statistics, England and Wales: Year ending September 2019 (16 January 2020). https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/858038/Knife_and_Offensive_Weapon_Sentencing_Pub_Q3_2019_v3_-_FINAL.pdf Accessed 30 October 2020.
  6. Ministry of Justice, Youth Statistics 2018/19 (30 January 2020). https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/862078/youth-justice-statistics-bulletin-march-2019.pdf Accessed 30 October 2020.
  7. Youth Violence Commission Final Report (July 2020) http://yvcommission.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/YVC-Final-Report-July-2020.pdf Accessed 30 October 2020.