Possession of Items for Self-Harm

I was recently asked on Twitter about the law around people possessing items like blades or scissors, purely for use in self-harm and whether or not they can be arrested / prosecuted? It was quite hard to explain in 140 characters so to avoid creating confusion or the wrong impression, I offerred to do this blog.

Firstly, a disclaimer!nothing that appears in the following explanation means that a person MUST be prosecuted for offences where they are being committed or that I think they should be arrested and prosecuted. All situations will turn on their particular circumstances. As I’ve explained elsewhere, it may not necessarily be in the public interest to prosecute someone for the commission of an offence – officers may decide to approach the situation using the Mental Health Act or by not detaining at all. This post merely seeks to explain the offences that may have been committed, rather than the complex decision about whether that offence should be prosecuted.

The examples given to me in the questions on Twitter have included someone possessing either a pair of scissors or a razor blade for use in self-harm only – is the act of possessing these items an offence? Well, there are two offences to think about and neither of them can be committed in a private place – most people have all manner of knives, scissors, screwdrivers and razor blades in their house, and obviously the law frames simple possession of these things as an offence only in a public place:

  • Possession of an “offensive weapon” – contrary to s1 of the Prevention of Crime Act 1953.
  • These include items which are “made, intended or adapted for causing harm to the person.” So for example, a “knuckle-duster” is made purely for the purpose of causing harm – it is an offensive weapon per se. A baseball bat is not an offensive weapon per se and if taken from your house to the park to play baseball you would not be committing an offence. If having played your game and you were walking home, you decided to use the baseball bat to rob the newsagents, it would “become” an offensive weapon by virtue of your changing the use to which you are putting it – in legal words it would have become “intended” for use as an offensive weapon.
  • Knives, razor blades and scissors are not offensive weapons per se, either –
  • They obviously have a function, primarily around cutting vegetables, shaving faces and cutting paper, etc.. It became clear that it was becoming too difficult to prosecute people found in possession of knives because you had to prove that additional element that the article was “intended” for use in causing harm. The Government of the day decided to update the legislation to make it harder to legally possess a knife, a blade or a “sharply pointed article” like a screwdriver.
  • Possession of a “bladed or sharply pointed article” – contrary to s139 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988.
  • Very similar offences, but modernising and extending the offensive weapons legislation. It is an offence to possess “any article which has a blade or is sharply pointed except a folding pocketknife.” The folding pocket knife is only permitted to have a blade up to 3 inches long.
  • You have a legal defence if you can show that you had “good reason or lawful authority for having the article” or that you had it “for use at work; for religious reasons; or as part of any national costume.”


Investigations into these offences often include some general or specific sense that people have possessed them for “self-defence”. This is not an arguable defence for either of the above – even where it can be shown that there was indeed a threat to be feared or faced.

The defences for example cover people who have bought these items and are taking them home; people who used tools as part of their job like builders; or parents who have confiscated them from a child. A member of the public who had picked up a knife at an incident, to keep it safe and from being used or reused until the police get there would not be guilty of possessing a bladed article even though they clearly were possessing it! They would have a “good reason” for doing so.


Possession of items in a public place intended for use purely in self-harm situations would also not be a defence. You’ll notice if you read this, however, that there is not a total ban upon possessing things to self-harm – it is a partial ban, not to possess offensive weapons or bladed / pointed articles except for folding pocket knives. Also, I remind you that these offences are committed only in a public place.

So if you are caught with a pair of scissors in a public place whilst attempting to self-harm with them, the officers could either respond to the offence or, if they thought it appropriate, detain under the Mental Health Act. If you were caught with scissors having just bought them at the shop and you were taking them home, officers would look upon that you having “a good reason”. Of course, usually, people with freshly purchased sharply-pointed or bladed articles will have them in a bag, possibly with a receipt and will know where they bought them, etc.. All questions that officers may ask if there is doubt as to whether the items were possessed “for good reason”.

Obviously I want to suggest, that if you are feeling the need to self-harm and you feel you may put yourself at risk, you should seek urgent help:

999 is always available to access the police or ambulance services in addition to your normal NHS resources like your GP, NHS Direct or Accident & Emergency.

Also bear in mind the Samaritans 24hr phone line:

08457 909090 – talk to someone if you need help.

I want to repeat my point: none of the above means officers can’t assess the full circumstances and act with discretion. They could confiscate an item and detain under the Mental Health Act, for example. (It would be lawful to seize something in circumstances where it were an offence, even if the criminal invesgation route were not being taken and discretion were being exercised to seek alternative approaches.)


I hope you can tolerate a little true story which, although not connected to mental health or self-harm issues, shows the extent to which these laws are misunderstood. It occurred when I was a PC after we arrested a man from the A&E department who had been very threatening towards staff and when we searched him after arrest, we found a VERY sharp craft knife blade in the lining of his jacket. He was further arrested for possessing a bladed article. When we checked out his background, we discovered he was “wanted” for a serious robbery where a samurai sword had been used to threaten to execute a man’s wife unless he opened a safe in his house and thousand of pounds worth of cash and jewellery had been stolen. His previous convictions suggested that the threat would not have been idle: he subsequently received ten years in custody for this offence.

They decided to run a trial in the Magistrates Court for the craft blade and I turned up to give my evidence. Upon arrival, both prosecution and defence solicitors were arguing about it all and when I went into the court room before the Magistrates entered to tell the usher I had arrived, the defence very arrogantly shouted across to me, “I don’t know why you people don’t measure the size of these things – it’s not even three inches.” I immediately said, “It’s also not a folding pocket knife so I’m not really concerned how large it is – it’s bloody dangerous in the hands of man like that.”

Out came the law books and I was sent out of court only to be beckoned in again and told the case was being dropped because “it’s not an offensive weapon per se.” I protested that I knew this which is precisely why we hadn’t charged him with possessing an offensive weapon. All too late … the case had been dropped.

When the formal aspects had been finished, the stipendiary Magistrate came back into court to chat with the defence solicitor – I think they knew each other. He overheard me and the CPS falling out over the whole affair and unhelpfully added, “If he’d been waving it about, intending to use it, it would have been different.”

I just looked at him and asked, “Sir, can I have your permission to return this item to the man in the cells below, bearing in mind he’s on remand for armed robbery having threatened to decapitate someone with a samurai sword. He’s a very violent criminal but this is his craft blade and the view has been taken that possession of it is not an offence.”

He said, “No! – of course you can’t. That would be incredibly dangerous!!” Exactly ………

Update on 01st April 2015 – since writing this article, a new Code of Practice has come into effect in England.  It doesn’t substantially alter the post but certain reference numbers have changed.  My summary post about the new Code of Practice (2015) is here, the new Reference Guide is here and the full document is here.  The Code of Practice (Wales) remains unchanged.

Winner of the President’s Medal,
the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

Winner of the Mind Digital Media Award


All views expressed are my own – they do not represent the views of any organisation.
(c) Michael Brown, 2013

I try to keep this blog up to date, but inevitably over time, amendments to the law as well as court rulings and other findings from inquests and complaints processes mean it is difficult to ensure all the articles and pages remain current.  Please ensure you check all legal issues in particular and take appropriate professional advice where necessary.

Government legislation website – www.legislation.gov.uk

15 thoughts on “Possession of Items for Self-Harm

  1. Another fantastic post, also helped clarify the situations a bit more, thanks. I admit to having a wee chuckle at the irony of the True Story 🙂

  2. My experience of working with self harm is that it tends to be done in private, (there is often a source of shame attached or the person knows that if they share the intent, they will be stopped) but it is great to know that the police are able to take an informed view on an individual basis.

  3. Unfortunately sometimes arresting for a criminal offence is the only way we can legally get items off people they use for self harm. There’s one particular person I have in mind who has been arrested tens of times for possession of a bladed article because she’s always found self harming in public but is always turned away after being Section 136 as she uses self harm as a coping mechanism. We’ve tried everything to get her some help but always hit a brick wall with MH teams saying there’s nothing they can do.

    There’s a part of me that thinks arresting her isn’t helping as she now says she does it in public just to to get arrested as we’re the only ones who care. But as you’ve said in the past it’s the least worst option.

  4. A person i know is a self harmer. I once went to vist them and when no one answered the door i let myself in, looked around then check upstairs to see if she had had an epileptic fit. she wasn’t home but what i found was not pleasant. Her bedsheets, pillows and carpet were covered in blood, fresh blood, there was blood on the walls there was blood everywhere. As she wasn’t there and was not answering her phone i dialed 999 and about ten mins later a pair of officers arrived. They had a look around, thye were interested in her laptop which was in her bedroom showing a screen saver, they asked if i knew the password, i didn’t but being a windows PC the security was easy to bypass. She had been on a self harm website. It became immediately clear that she had been using a self harm forum and had fallen out with someone and was extremely upset.
    While this was going on a message came over the radio that they had received a report of a woman crying in local cemetery. We made our way there and it was her, crying covered in her own blood. She was extremely upset and she was cooperative with the police. She had an unopened packet of stanley blades in her pocket. which they took from her before trying to have a chat with her. They then took her to away, but they didn’t arrest her. She was taken to Halifax Police Station and put in to a cell with the door left open.

    Upto that point Police officers behaved well and could not be criticized. However they then “forgot” about her, they refused to give her the medication she needs, medication not just to deal with the psychological problems she suffered because she was sexually abused as a minor, abuse which was then compounded when she reported that abuse to Police and was laughed at and taken home to her parents who then treat her badly for bringing shame upon her family. the medication she needed was for epilepsy, steroid treatments for asthma and other medication for less serious ailments.
    She was not permitted to see anyone by officers, she was denied access to any representation, she was seen by someone tended her wounds but that is it.

    When i called, and i called repeatedly i was told that they were waiting for a psychiatrist to come and see her, when asked about her medication they were not allowed to give her any and that wasn’t their problem. When i asked if she had been arrested i was told that she had not and when i asked if she was being held under the mental health act i was also told that was not the case. I was told that they would like her to be seen by a professional before she came home.

    She was eventually seen 38 hours after being taken to the station and within an hour i had picked her up and taken her to her home where she was able to resume her medication.

    She was taken to the station on Friday evening, i called on Friday to check on her welfare, i called on Saturday repeatedly expecting her to be released or admitted to hospital, when i was calling on Sunday and being told the same as i was 24 hours earlier i was shocked and very concerned.

    A true story for you. Make of it what you will.

    1. I realise that is quite extreme, it must have been distressing for you to see the state of both your friend and her house, I guess one things is that most self harmers are everyday people keeping it under wraps…in which case, although bad, it’s not presenting a risk to their life… I guess regarding the blog it all depends on the attending officers opinion…while what happened with your friend is for her safety, arresting one who is ‘functioning normally’ would have a different impact…

    2. Please don’t take this the wrong way: because that’s an awful story that I’m sad to read and my main concern is for your friend and her welfare.

      My second impression, however, is that you misunderstand various laws and procedures which leave you free to imply criticism of the officers and in various parts – not all – I read your tale and thought, “yes, that sounds right”, “that’s because the NHS don’t commission services” and “that criticism is misunderstanding.”

      The police don’t decide whether someone gets medication in custody – doctors do. There are various circumstances in which medication normally taken is not permitted by doctors in custody; and vice versa. The story in itself is insufficient to tell whether this is one of those cases or not.

      The response times involved, the fact that she was taken to a cell block suggests she was detained under the Mental Health Act by the police – is this right? If so, then your friend was (legally speaking) arrested. I’m concerned about your claim that she denied legal representation: although I have known solicitors ask of their s136 clients “What do you want me to do?” because there is a limit. It’s not like representing someone under arrest for an offence where you can push officers around evidence, prosecution decisions or the timeliness with which they undertake enquiries. All you can do is wait for the psychiatrists and the AMHP and see what they say.

      1. I may misunderstand some of the laws here, the law is complex and while i would consider myself more than clued up on some aspects of the law. The mental health legislation is not an area i am very familiar with.

        This happened back in 2008. The lady was very upset and her being taken to a safe place by officer was the right thing to do. She needed to calm down. I asked at the time she was getting into the police car if she was being arrested and the answer was definetley no. When i called a few hours later i was told the police doctor had looked at her wounds (cuts, lots of them, not all deep on her upper legs, stomach, and arms). At this point it was late and obvious that she would be staying the night. I asked about medication and was told that there was nothing that officers could do and that the police doctor was unwilling to give her medication because he didn’t have her notes.

        I telephoned in the morning and was told that she was ok and that a psychiatrist had been called and they was waiting for him to arrive. I again asked if she had been arrested and was told that she hadn’t been. I mention medication again, stressing that she suffered from epilepsy and that she needed her medication but this made no difference there was nothing that could be done.

        I called a number of times that day and was told the same.

        The following day i made more of an effort to find out what was happening. It was my understanding that people couldn’t be held for more than 24 hours without being charged. About an hour after had made that effort i received a phone call from the psychiatrist, he wanted to know some background information on my friend he spoke with some urgency and expressed concern at the length of time she had been with the police. within half an hour i was called to go pick her up.

        On the way back we discussed what had happened and that is when she told me that she had asked for, but never saw a solictor, she asked because she felt she needed her medication. She also told me plenty of other things about her stay. I asked her if she had been arrested and she said she didn’t know and that she thought that the polce were giving her a safe place to calm down in but when she had clamed down and wanted to go home they wouldn’t let her.

        It was very odd situation which raised a few eyebrows but at the time i was far more concerned with the welfare of my friend than i was about learning about what went on or perhaps wrong.

      2. May be she was not initially arrested, but this was done later? … who knows. Also fair to say, some officers misunderstand that s136 is an arrest and call it a “detention” or similar. We need to distinguish between being “arrested” and being “arrested for an offence: the law allows arrests for many reasons, not all of them offences. If you are detained under s136 MHA, which is my best guess about what was happening here, you can be detained in whichever “place of safety” you are removed to for up to 72hrs. The three things that concern me in the tale, are why the police station was used as the place of safety but even now it quite frequently is and this is usually beyond the control of the police; an other is why the solicitor either wasn’t called (an issue for the police) or didn’t respond when called (an issue for the solicitor); and finally why it took so long to arrange the MH assessment with the psychiatrist. Unfortunately, such tales are not uncommon even now and were even more common five or so years ago.

      3. It might be the case that she was arrested later but the Officer on the telephone said not and when i picked my friend up she didn’t know what had happened to her, that is she could recall events without any problem but was unaware of being arrested.

        I do recall at the time thinking that perhaps she was left to calm down but the the Friday night chaos started up and the officer who took her in went to carry out other duties and didn’t get change to return to her, then when the shift change took place i don’t think the new officers knew or understood what was going on.

        There was most certainly a break down in communication between my friend, the officers in the station and myself.

        Her not being provided with a solicitor was of concern to me when i found out but i did nothing about it at the time. West Yorkshire Police had and still has a poor reputation and the station she was taken to in Halifax is quite possibly one of the worst in the area. It was badly designed when it was built and as Policing has changed and continues to change and as more of the smaller local station are closed down by budget cuts, more pressure is placed on a building which just cannot cope. That’s not a good excuse for poor performance but is does go some way to explain it.

  5. “I just looked at him and asked, “Sir, can I have your permission to return this item to the man in the cells below, bearing in mind he’s on remand for armed robbery where he threatened to decapitate someone with a samurai sword. He s a very violent criminal but this is his craft blade is his and the view has been taken that possession of it is not an offence.”

    He said, “No! – of course you can’t. That would be incredibly dangerous!!” Exactly ………”

    *facepalm* right there

  6. In my second year of uni my mum was diagnosed with terminal cancer and I ‘went off the rails’, so to speak, I was self-harming, putting myself in vulnerable situations, and I ended up detained under the MHA 6 times within the space of 6 weeks. I had scissors with me on two of those occasions – once in my pocket, once in my hand. On this occasion they searched me, and took the scissors from my hand, very very slowly. I was very scared of being in trouble, but I am very grateful to them for the way they did their jobs.

    I was coping terribly at the time, and I didn’t think I needed help – in my eyes at the time I wasn’t trying to kill myself so I was fine. They said they were concerned I was going to end up doing something I couldn’t turn back from. The police officers who detained me on those occasions were so reassuring with me, non-judgemental – at least when they were with me; they were very calm with me even when they had to use restraint, they were straight with me, and they explained everything to me. They talked to me so much about my mum and what was going on for me, and they kept me safe when I needed it.

    For them it was just their jobs. But for me that was my life, and they helped me more than they will ever know. I’ve had no more incidents now since then (2010), I had bereavement counselling for a while but am now just a generally average 23-year-old, and some of the things they said back then still help me to think about now.

    This has gone off on a huge tangent. But I am very grateful to the police for helping me the way they did when I had items on me to self-harm with.

    1. Thanks for posting that – a useful tonic against the notion that police officers are insensitive and more often than not get it wrong. I didn’t go off at a tangent: that’s what the post was suggesting should happen, notwithstanding that it was an explanation of laws.

  7. hey guys im 14 and self harm to i was told by a close friend of mine that i was just cutting for attention i then was really upset i thought of cutting again but said no which is pretty good as ive diid it 4 years

  8. I recently asked a lawyer for advice on this issue, I self harm and sometimes feel the need to have a blade with me as a sort of security blanket. Knowing I can usually means I dont.
    And just to dispel a few stereotypes I am 54 and male.

    I asked: “I know that carrying a blade, such as a blade from a Stanly knife is an offense without good reason but would carrying it because I self harm, and dont feel safe or in control without the means to self harm be acceptable defense?
    I don’t usually self harm anywhere other than at home but feel the need to be able to if i need”

    Anyhow the response I received was:

    That would not be a good reason I’m afraid.
    A good reason would be something like needing it for work.
    What is ‘reasonable excuse’ is a matter of policy ultimately but it is quite unlikely that it is going to be accepted that the capacity to self harm gives rise to reasonable excuse.
    That is always supposing that defence was accepted anyway.

    Maybe of some help to somebody!

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