Acid is to be defined as a “highly dangerous weapon” for the first time, allowing judges to impose harsher punishments on anyone found to be carrying it in public.
New guidelines published by the Sentencing Council are part of efforts to crackdown 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 new 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 fatal stabbings in London, including the killing of two victims within two hours last week. The deaths brought the number of fatal stabbings in London to 16 so far in 2018, with five of them teenagers.
Recorded violent crime has been rising across England and Wales. In the three months to September, there were 3,359 offences of possession of an article with a blade or point, 1,708 of possession of an offensive weapon and 257 of threatening with a knife or offensive weapon that resulted in a caution or sentence.
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.
“If 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.”
Rory Stewart, a justice minister, welcomed the changes, which will come into force in courts on 1 June.
“Knives ruin lives and fracture communities – and carrying a weapon is often an indicator of further devastating crimes to come,” he said.
“We must equally recognise the emerging threat of other weapons, such as acid, and those caught with any offensive weapon must feel the full force of the law.”
The Home Office said the “sickening crimes” would be met with the highest possible sentences.
A spokesperson said it was making “good progress” on an action plan to tackle acid attacks and would be announcing a new serious violence strategy later this year.
“We will shortly announce our response to last year’s consultation on new legislation banning sales of corrosives to under-18s and introducing a new offence for possessing corrosive products in a public space,” he added.
“In the meantime we have put in place a set of voluntary commitments with retailers to restrict access to most harmful products.
“Knife crime, acid attacks and serious violent offences devastate lives and that is why we’ll be announcing our new Serious Violence Strategy in the spring.
“It will place a new emphasis on steering young people away from a life of crime, while continuing to promote the strongest possible law enforcement response.”