The rule that words alone are sufficient to constitute an assault became firmly entrenched in the case of R v Ireland and Burstow (1997) which further broaden the scope of liability for assault that is committed merely with words and continued along the lines of what was said (obiter) in R v Wilson (1955) and the decision in R v Constanza (1997).
In R v Ireland and Burstow (1997) the defendant and the victim were in a brief relationship which the victim unexpectedly ended. Unhappy with the victim’s decision, the defendant harassed the victim for several months making repeated phone calls, sending her threatening letters, turning up unexpectedly and speaking to her neighbors. The defendant’s actions caused the victim to succumb to a psychiatric illness (severe depression).
The question before the courts were as follows: –
- Are words alone sufficient to constitute an assault and
- Does psychiatric illness (injury) fall within the scope of s. 18, s. 20 and s. 47 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 and can it be defined as bodily harm.
S. 18, s.20 and s.47 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 (OAPA 1861) read as follows: –
s.18 Whosoever shall unlawfully and maliciously by any means whatsoever wound or cause any grievous bodily harm to any person, . . . with intent, . . . to do some . . . grievous bodily harm to any person, or with intent to resist or prevent the lawful apprehension or detainer of any person, shall be guilty of felony, and being convicted thereof shall be liable . . . to be kept in penal servitude for life . . .
s.20 Whosoever shall unlawfully and maliciously wound or inflict any grievous bodily harm upon any other person, either with or without any weapon or instrument, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor, and being convicted thereof shall be liable . . . to be kept in penal servitude . . .
s. 47 Whosoever shall be convicted upon an indictment of any assault occasioning actual bodily harm shall be liable . . . [to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 7 years] . . . ; and whosoever shall be convicted upon an indictment for a common assault shall be liable, at the discretion of the court, to be imprisoned for any term not exceeding [two years]
It was decided that on: –
- Words are sufficient to constitute an assault. In fact, silence alone for example in instances where the caller calls the victim and remains silent can constitute an assault – the proposition … that words cannot suffice is unrealistic and indefensible. With reference to phone calls – that fact that the caller calls and remains silent to cause fear and intimidation is sufficient to constitute an assault – Lord Steyn see R v Ireland (1998)
- Psychiatric illness (injury) does fall under the scope of bodily harm or can be classified or categorized as bodily harm.
Copyright © 2018 by Dyarne Ward