R v Ireland [1998] AC 147 – House of Lords

Subject: Criminal Law

Other Related Subjects: Tort Law

Keywords: Assault; ABH; Malicious communications; Psychiatric harm

Summary: Ireland made a series of silent telephone calls to three different women for three months. He was convicted of assault occasioning ABH (actual bodily harm) under s 47 of the OAPA (Offences Against the Person Act) 1861, after pleading guilty to making malicious telephone calls to women. He appealed against the dismissal of his appeal against conviction on the grounds that silence cannot amount to assault, and that psychiatric injury is not bodily harm.

His appeal was dismissed. It was held that anything causing apprehension of immediate personal violence amounted to assault. It was also held that a recognisable psychiatric illness caused by a victim of malicious telephone calls amounted to bodily harm within the meaning of the OAPA 1861.

It is to assault in the form of an act causing the victim to fear an immediate application of force to her that I must turn. […] The proposition that a gesture may amount to an assault, but that words can never suffice, is unrealistic and indefensible. A thing said is also a thing done. There is no reason why something said should be incapable of causing an apprehension of immediate personal violence, e.g. a man accosting a woman in a dark alley saying “come with me or I will stab you.” I would, therefore, reject the proposition that an assault can never be committed by words.

The proposition that the Victorian legislator when enacting sections 18, 20 and 47 of the Act 1861, would not have had in mind psychiatric illness is no doubt correct. Psychiatry was in its infancy in 1861. But the subjective intention of the draftsman is immaterial. The only relevant enquiry is as to the sense of the words in the context in which they are used. […] the statute must be interpreted in the light of the best current scientific appreciation of the link between the body and psychiatric injury. […] I would hold that “bodily harm” in sections 18, 20 and 47 must be interpreted so as to include recognizable psychiatric illness.

– Lord Steyn


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