Cozens v Brutus

JurisdictionEngland & Wales
CourtHouse of Lords
JudgeLord Reid,Lord Morris of Borth-y-Gest,Viscount Dilhorne,Lord Diplock,Lord Kilbrandon
Judgment Date19 June 1972
Judgment citation (vLex)[1972] UKHL J0619-1
Date19 June 1972

[1972] UKHL J0619-1

House of Lords

Lord Reid

Lord Morris of Borth-y-Gest

Viscount Dilhorne

Lord Diplock

Lord Kilbrandon

Lord Reid

My Lords,


The charge against the Appellant is that on 28th June, 1971, during the annual tournament at the All England Lawn Tennis Club, Wimbledon, he used insulting behaviour whereby a breach of the peace was likely to be occasioned, contrary to section 5 of the Public Order Act, 1936, as amended.


While a match was in progress on No. 2 Court he went on to the Court, blew a whistle and threw leaflets around. On the whistle being blown nine or ten others invaded the court with banners and placards. I shall assume that they did this at the instigation of the Appellant though that is not made very clear in the Case Stated by the Magistrates. Then the Appellant sat down and had to be forcibly removed by the police. The incident lasted for two or three minutes. This is said to have been insulting behaviour.


It appears that the object of this demonstration was to protest against the Apartheid policy of the Government of South Africa. But it is not said that that Government was insulted. The insult is said to have been offered to or directed at the spectators.


The spectators at No. 2 court were upset: they made loud shouts, gesticulated and shook their fists and while the Appellant was being removed some showed hostility and attempted to strike him.


The Magistrates came to the conclusion that the Appellant's behaviour was not insulting within the terms of the offence alleged. They did not consider the other points raised in argument but dismissed the information without calling upon the Appellant.


On a Case Stated a Divisional Court set aside the judgment of the Magistrates and remitted the case to them to continue the hearing of the case. They certified as a point of law of general public importance:

"Whether conduct which evidences a disrespect for the rights of others so that it is likely to cause their resentment or give rise to protests from them is insulting behaviour within the meaning of section 5 of the Public Order Act, 1936."


Section 5 is in these terms:

"Any person who in any public place or at any public meeting uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour with intent to provoke a breach of the peace or whereby a breach of the peace is likely to be occasioned shall be guilty of an offence."


Subsequent amendments do not affect the question which we have to consider.


It is not clear to me what precisely is the point of law which we have to decide. The question in the Case Stated for the opinion of the Court is "Whether, on the above statement of facts, we came to a correct determination and decision in point of law". This seems to assume that the meaning of the word "insulting" in section 5 is a matter of law. And the Divisional Court appear to have proceeded on that footing.


In my judgment that is not right. 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 farther 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.


Or the Court could frame a definition. But then again the tribunal would be left with words to consider. No doubt a statute may contain a definition—which incidentally often creates more problems than it solves—but the purpose of a definition is to limit or modify the ordinary meaning of a word and the Court is not entitled to do that.


So the question of law in this case must be whether it was unreasonable to hold that the Appellant's behaviour was not insulting. To that question there could in my view be only one answer—No.


But as the Divisional Court have expressed their view as to the meaning of "insulting" I must, I think, consider it. It was said:

"The language of section 5, omitting words which do not matter for our present purpose, is this: 'Any person who in any public place … uses … insulting …. behaviour with intent to provoke a breach of the peace or whereby a breach of the peace is likely to be occasioned, shall be guilty of an offence'. It therefore becomes necessary to consider the meaning of the word 'insulting' in its context in that section. In my view it is not necessary, and is probably undesirable, to try to frame an exhaustive definition which will cover every possible set of facts that may arise for consideration under this section. It is, as I think, quite sufficient for the purpose of this case to say that behaviour which affronts other people, and evidences a disrespect or contempt for their rights, behaviour which reasonable persons would foresee is likely to cause resentment or protest such as was aroused in this case, and I rely particularly on the reaction of the crowd as set out in the case, is insulting for the purpose of this section."


I cannot agree with that. Parliament had to solve the difficult question 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 may 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.


Taking the passage which I have quoted, "affront" is much too vague a word to be helpful; there can often be disrespect without insult, and I do not think that contempt for a person's rights as distinct from contempt for the person himself would generally be held to be insulting. Moreover there are many grounds other than insult for feeling resentment or protesting. I do not agree that there can be conduct which is not insulting in the ordinary sense of the word but which is "insulting for the purpose of this section". If the view of the Divisional Court was that in this section the word "insulting" has some special or unusually wide meaning, then I do not agree. Parliament has given no indication that the word is to be given any unusual meaning. Insulting means insulting and nothing else.


If I had to decide, which I do not, whether the Appellant's conduct insulted the spectators in this case, I would agree with the Magistrates. The spectators may have been very angry and justly so. The Appellant's conduct was deplorable. Probably it ought to be punishable. But I cannot see how it insulted the spectators.


I would allow the appeal with costs.

Lord Morris of Borth-y-Gest

My Lords,


The charge which was brought against the Appellant was that he "Did use insulting behaviour whereby a breach of the peace was likely to be occasioned at the All England Lawn Tennis Club, Church Road, Wimbledon, S.W.10 on 28th June, 1971". Having found the facts the Magistrates came to the conclusion that the Appellant's behaviour was not "insulting behaviour" within the terms of the offence charged under section 5 of the Public Order Act, 1936, as amended: it was therefore unnecessary for them to consider any further matters. Under that section, provided other matters are proved, a person will commit an offence if he uses threatening behaviour or if he uses abusive behaviour or if he uses...

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