Legal Dictionary

public nuisance

Legal Definition of public nuisance

Related terms

Definition of public nuisance

Further reading

In English criminal law, public nuisance is a class of common law offence in which the injury, loss or damage is suffered by the local community as a whole rather than by individual victims.

The law reviewed

In R v Goldstein and Rimmington (2005) UKHL 63 two separate appeal cases were considered together. The Lords began their judgment with a detailed review of the law and its history. Two arguments were raised by the defence. The first was that most of the factual situations that might otherwise have been criminal public nuisances, had now been covered by statutes. Thus, for example, s1 Protection from Harassment Act 1997 would now be used in cases involving multiple telephone calls, and s63 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 confers powers on the police to remove persons attending or preparing for a rave "at which amplified music is played during the night (with or without intermissions) and is such as, by reason of its loudness and duration and the time at which it is played, is likely to cause serious distress to the inhabitants of the locality". These statutes had, in effect, made the common law offence redundant and it should no longer be considered an offence in English law. The Lords agreed that, as a matter of practice, all alleged offences falling within the remit of statutes would now be charged under those statutes. It also accepted that this left only a very small scope for the application of the common law offence. But, just as the courts had no power to create new offences (R v Withers), and could not widen existing offences so as to retrospectively criminalise conduct (R v Misra and Srivastava (2004) EWCA Crim 2375), it equally had no power to abolish existing offences. However, cases such as R v Norbury and R v Johnson (Anthony) would now be charged under the relevant statutes.

The second argument raised by the defence was that the law lacked the certainty to be valid under Article 7 European Convention on Human Rights.

    "No punishment without law
    (1) No one shall be held guilty of any criminal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a criminal offence under national or international law at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the criminal offence was committed."

Of all the common law offences considered at Strasbourg, only the criterion of "contra bonos mores" had been held to lack the appropriate quality of certainty (see Hashman and Harrup v United Kingdom (1999) 30 EHRR 241). The Lords therefore held that, as defined in Archbold, the offence did have sufficient certainty so that any legal practitioner asked to advise on whether proposed conduct was likely to be criminal, would be able to give an accurate answer.

- Rimmington's appeal

Rimmington sent more than six hundred racially provocative packages to a significant number of persons over a period of years. Just as the law did not now apply to an accumulation of telephone calls, it could not apply to an accumulation of postal packets.

- Goldstein's appeal

As a cultural reference, Goldstein sent an envelope to a friend of his containing a small quantity of salt. Some of this salt escaped from the envelope at a postal sorting office, which was closed as a precaution so that tests could be carried out to determine whether the material spilt was dangerous. The Lords accepted that a significant number of people were disadvantaged by the closure of the sorting office and the loss of delivery on that day, but held that the appellant did not have the appropriate mens rea because he did not know or reasonably should have known (because the means of knowledge were available to him) that the salt would escape in the sorting office or in the course of postal delivery.


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1.     lex fori
2.     landed property
3.     lex situs
4.     respondent
5.     default judgment
6.     tort law
7.     living will
8.     lex causae
9.     law
10.     salacious