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R v Ireland [1997] 3 WLR 534 House of Lords

The defendant made a series of silent telephone calls over three months to three different women. He was convicted under s.47 Offences Against the Person Act 1861. He appealed contending that silence cannot amount to an assault and that psychiatric injury is not bodily harm.


His conviction was upheld. Silence can amount to an assault and psychiatric injury can amount to bodily harm.

Lord Steyn

"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. Counsel argued that as a matter of law an assault can never be committed by words alone and therefore it cannot be committed by silence. The premise depends on the slenderest authority, namely, an observation by Holroyd J. to a jury that "no words or singing are equivalent to an assault": Meade's and Belt's case 1 (1823) 1 Lew. C.C. 184. 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. Moreover the Act of 1861 is a statute of the "always speaking" type: the statute must be interpreted in the light of the best current scientific appreciation of the link between the body and psychiatric injury. For these reasons I would, therefore, reject the challenge to the correctness of Chan-Fook [1994] 1 W.L.R. 689. In my view the ruling in that case was based on principled and cogent reasoning and it marked a sound and essential clarification of the law. I would hold that "bodily harm" in sections 18, 20 and 47 must be interpreted so as to include recognizable psychiatric illness."
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