Brutus v Cozens: HL 19 Jul 1972

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
[1973] AC 854, [1972] UKHL 6, HL/PO/JU/4/3/1219
Public Order Act 1936 5
England and Wales
CitedBryan v Robinson 1960
Lord Parker CJ said: ‘Somebody may be annoyed by behaviour which is not insulting behaviour.’ . .
CitedCooper and Others v Shield 1971
. .
CitedJordan 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 by:
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Lists of cited by and citing cases may be incomplete.


Leading Case

Updated: 01 November 2021; Ref: scu.182750