R v Ireland and Burstow [1997] UKHL 34

Can psychiatric injury be considered bodily harm, and whether ‘inflicted’ ought be interpreted as requiring physical force.


The defendant and victim were engaged in a short romantic relationship, which the victim ended. Unhappy with this decision, the defendant proceeded to harass the victim over several months, making repeated phone calls, delivering hate mail, appearing unexpectedly, harassing her neighbours, inter alia, causing her to sustain psychiatric injury (severe depression).


Whether psychiatric injury could be classified as bodily harm, as per s. 18, s. 20 and s. 47 of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. Further, whether it would be possible to bring a charge of actual bodily harm under s. 20, which requires that harm be ‘inflicted’, where there had been no physical force applied or damaged caused by the defendant being charged.


The House of Lords held that psychiatric injury did suffice to be considered ‘bodily harm’, building on the obiter dicta in R v Chan Fook (1994) 1 WLR 689 in which it was determined that psychiatric injury could be classified as ABH under s. 20. Lord Steyn extended the Chan Fook judgment, stating that in considering whether psychiatric illness can amount to bodily harm for s. 18, s. 20 and s. 47 of the OAPA, ‘the answer must be the same’ ([156]). Notably, it was viewed as necessary for public policy reasons that the law ought provide recourse to women suffering from malicious harassment by former and unrequited lovers. Moreover, in interpreting the word ‘inflict’ in s. 20, the Court determined it did not require the application of physical force, but instead could be understood as simply meaning the defendant’s actions had been causative of the injury. Subsequently, the defendant was found guilty of assault.

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