The House was asked whether the conduct of the defendant at a tennis match at Wimbledon amounted to using ‘insulting words or behaviour’ whereby a breach of the peace was likely to be occasioned contrary to section 5. He went onto court 2, blew a whistle and threw about leaflets. He was protesting about South Africa. He argued that he had had no intention to insult anybody present.
Held: The appeal was allowed, and the prosecution quashed. The House refused to accept that the words needed legal interpretation before being applied by the jury to the particular case.
Lord Reid said: ‘The meaning of an ordinary word of the English language is not a question of law. The proper construction of a statute is a question of law. If the context shows that a word is used in an unusual sense the court will determine in other words what that unusual sense is. But here there is in my opinion no question of the word ‘insulting’ being used in any unusual sense. It appears to me, for reasons which I shall give later, to be intended to have its ordinary meaning. It is for the tribunal which decides the case to consider, not as law but as fact, whether in the whole circumstances the words of the statute do or do not as a matter of ordinary usage of the English language cover or apply to the facts which have been proved. If it is alleged that the tribunal has reached a wrong decision then there can be a question of law but only of a limited character. The question would normally be whether their decision was unreasonable in the sense that no tribunal acquainted with the ordinary use of language could reasonably reach that decision.
Were it otherwise we should reach an impossible position. When considering the meaning of a word one often goes to a dictionary. There one finds other words set out. And if one wants to pursue the matter and find the meaning of those other words the dictionary will give the meaning of those other words in still further words which often include the word for whose meaning one is searching.
No doubt the court could act as a dictionary. It could direct the tribunal to take some word or phrase other than the word in the statute and consider whether that word or phrase applied to or covered the facts proved. But we have been warned time and again not to substitute other words for the words of a statute. And there is very good reason for that. Few words have exact synonyms. The overtones are almost always different.’
‘Parliament had to solve the difficult question of how far freedom of speech or behaviour must be limited in the general public interest. It would have been going much too far to prohibit all speech or conduct likely to occasion a breach of the peace because determined opponents might not shrink from organising or at least threatening a breach of the peace in order to silence a speaker whose views they detest. Therefore vigorous and it may be distasteful or unmannerly speech or behaviour is permitted so long as it does not go beyond any one of three limits. It must not be threatening. It must not be abusive. It must not be insulting. I see no reason why any of these should be construed as having a specially wide or a specially narrow meaning. They are all limits easily recognisable by the ordinary man. Free speech is not impaired by ruling them out. But before a man can be convicted it must be clearly shown that one or more of them has been disregarded.
We were referred to a number of dictionary meanings of ‘insult’ such as treating with insolence or contempt or indignity or derision or dishonour or offensive disrespect. Many things otherwise unobjectionable may be said or done in an insulting way. There can be no definition. But an ordinary sensible man knows an insult when he sees or hears it. The Divisional Court had tried to lay down a definition of the words ‘insulting behaviour’ and then to say that the appellants behaviour came within the definition. But the Act contains no such definition, and indeed no words of definition are needed. The words of the section are clear and they convey of themselves a meaning which the ordinary citizen can well understand. The suggested definition would enlarge what Parliament has enacted and it would do this in relation to a criminal offence. The Act does not define the meaning to be given to the word ‘insulting’ and the cases cited in this House, the Divisional Court and before the magistrates do not say or suggest that it should be given any special meaning. Unless the context otherwise requires, words in a statute have to be given their ordinary natural meaning and there is in this Act nothing to indicate or suggest that the word ‘insulting’ should be given any other than its ordinary natural meaning. ‘
Lord Kilbrandon said: ”insulting’ is an ordinary uncomplicated English word. Boswell defends Dr. Johnson, to whose work we were referred, against a charge of obscurity in his definitions, by quoting from the preface to the dictionary: ‘To explain, requires the use of terms less abstruse than that which is to be explained, and such terms cannot always be found. . The easiest word, whatever it may be, can never be translated into one more easy.’ One felt the force of this upon being offered as exegetical substitutions for the word ‘ insult’ suchwords as ‘ insolence ‘ or ‘ affront’. All three words are as much, or as little, in need of interpretation.
Viscount Dilhorne, Lord Reid, Lord Morris
 AC 854,  UKHL 6, HL/PO/JU/4/3/1219
Public Order Act 1936 5
England and Wales
Cited – Bryan v Robinson 1960
Lord Parker CJ said: ‘Somebody may be annoyed by behaviour which is not insulting behaviour.’ . .
Cited – Cooper and Others v Shield 1971
Cited – Jordan v Burgoyne 1963
The defendant, a racist addressed a crowd containing many persons of the Jewish faith and other people of sensible but strong views saying, in the most obnoxious way, that ‘Hitler was right’, and other crazed sentiments of that kind.
Held: . .
Cited – Jolie v Regina CACD 23-May-2003
The appellant had been convicted of having a pointed article with him in a public place. He said that the car he was driving had needed an instrument to operate the lock. At first he had used a knife, but then used scissors, losing the knife in the . .
Cited – Moyna v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions HL 31-Jul-2003
The appellant had applied for and been refused disability living allowance on the basis of being able to carry out certain cooking tasks.
Held: The purpose of the ‘cooking test’ is not to ascertain whether the applicant can survive, or enjoy a . .
Cited – Percy v Director of Public Prosecutions Admn 21-Dec-2001
The defendant had been convicted of using words or behaviour likely to cause harassment alarm or distress, when she defaced the US flag, and stood on it before a US military officer. She said that the defacing of flags was a common form of protest, . .
Cited – Director of Public Prosecutions v Hammond QBD 13-Jan-2004
A preacher repeatedly displayed posters such as ‘Stop Homosexuality’ and ‘Stop Lesbianism’. He had been convicted of displaying a sign which was threatening abusive or insulting within the sight of a person likely to be caused harrassment alarm on . .
Cited – Evans Dorothy, Regina v CACD 6-Dec-2004
The defendant appealed her conviction for having breached a restraining order under the 1997 Act. The order required her not to be ‘abusive by words or actions’ towards her neighbour. She had regularly parked her car so as to block her neighbour’s . .
Cited – Director of Public Prosecutions v Collins Admn 23-Jun-2005
The defendant had, over a period of time, telephoned his MP’s office using racially abusive epithets. He was originally charged under the 1984 Act, but then under the 2003 Act. The magistrates found the remarks offensive, but not so grossly . .
Cited – Fogg and Ledgard v The Secretary of State for Defence, Short Admn 13-Dec-2005
The applicants sought judicial review of a decision of the respondent not to name the wreck of the merchant ship SS STORAA as a protected site under the 1986 Act. It had been a merchant ship forming part of a convoy, and was sunk by enemy action in . .
Cited – Fitzroy House Epworth Street (No. 1) Ltd and Another v Financial Times Ltd CA 31-Mar-2006
The defendant tenant sought to exercise a break clause in the lease. The landlord said that the notice was deficient because the tenant had failed ‘materially to comply with’ its repairing obligations. The judge found the cost of repairs were . .
Cited – Director of Public Prosecutions v Collins HL 19-Jul-2006
The defendant had made a series of racist and abusive calls to the office of his local MP. The prosecutor appealed a refusal to convict under the 1984 (now the 2003) Act. The defendant had argued that the messages had been offensive, but not grossly . .
Cited – Majorstake Ltd v Curtis CA 8-Aug-2006
The tenant had given notice under section 42 requiring a new lease. The landlord said it wished to redevelop the apartment by combining it with a neighbouring one. The issue was as to what constituted ‘any premises in which [Flat 77] is contained’ . .
Cited – Connolly v Director of Public Prosecutions Admn 15-Feb-2007
The defendant appealed against her conviction under the Act for having sent indecent or grossly offensive material through the post in the form of pictures of an aborted foetus sent to pharmacists. She denied that they were offensive, or that she . .
Cited – H, Regina v (Interlocutory application: Disclosure) HL 28-Feb-2007
The trial judge had refused an order requested at a preparatory hearing by the defence for the disclosure of documents held by the prosecutor. The House was now asked whether a right of appeal existed against such a refusal.
Held: The practice . .
Cited – Demirkaya v Secretary of State for Home Department CA 23-Jun-1999
Whether an asylum applicant had a well founded fear of persecution if he returned home, is always a question of fact and degree, and could not be made a question of law. Even so where there was a clear risk of repeated rather than single beatings if . .
Dicta Applied – Customs and Excise v McLean Homes (Midland) Ltd 1993
Cited – HM Revenue and Customs v Lt Cmdr Colin Stone; The Kei ChD 5-Jun-2008
The taxpayer had imported a newly built Dutch Barge. The Revenue appealed a decision that VAT was not payable on that import. He had claimed exemption on the basis that it was a ship exceeding 15 tons and not designed or adapted for leisure use.
Approved – W v L CA 1974
For civil patients, it matters a great deal whether the classification of their condition is ‘severe subnormality’ or just ‘subnormality’ or whether it is ‘mental illness’ or ‘psychopathic disorder’. Lawton LJ discussed the construction of the . .
Cited – McFaddens (A Firm) v Platford TCC 30-Jan-2009
The claimant firm of solicitors had been found negligent, and now sought a contribution to the damages awarded from the barrister defendant. They had not managed properly issues as to their clients competence to handle the proceedings.
Held: . .
Cited – NW, Regina v CACD 3-Mar-2010
The appellant, a schoolgirl and her friend were involved in an incident with police officers which rapidly escalated. She said that only she had been involved, but that it was wrong when others quite outside her control became involved on seeing the . .
Cited – Hammond v Director of Public Prosecutions Admn 13-Jan-2004
The defendant, who had since died, had been convicted of a public order offence in that standing in a street he had displayed a range of placards opposing homosexuality. He appealed saying that the finding was an unwarranted infringement of his . .
Cited – Abdul and Others v Director of Public Prosecutions Admn 16-Feb-2011
The defendants appealed against convictions for using threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour or disorderly behaviour . . within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress. He had attended a . .
Cited – Bauer and Others v The Director of Public Prosecutions Admn 22-Mar-2013
The appellants had entered Fortnum and Masons to demonstrate against tax avoidance. They appealed against convitions for aggravated trespass.
Held: The statutory question posed by s.68 is whether the prosecution can prove that the trespasser . .
Cited – Jones v First Tier Tribunal and Another SC 17-Apr-2013
The claimant had been injured when a lorry driver swerved to avoid hitting a man who stood in his path. He said that the deceased’s act of suicide amounted to an offence of violence under the 1861 Act so as to bring his own claim within the 2001 . .
Cited – Golds, Regina v SC 30-Nov-2016
The defendant appealed against his conviction for murder, saying that he should have been only convicted of manslaughter, applying the new test for diminished responsibility as provided under the 1957 Act as amended, and particularly whether the . .
Lists of cited by and citing cases may be incomplete.
Updated: 01 November 2021; Ref: scu.182750