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R v Rimmington; R v Goldstein [2005] UKHL 63; [2006] 2 All ER 257

Nuisance; whether offence at common law; human rights

(355 words)

Facts

Rimmington sent hundreds of letters containing racial offensive material to several people. Goldstein sent some salt and a cheque in repayment of a debt to a friend; he intended the inclusion of salt to be a joke but a post worker mistook it for anthrax. Both were indicted for public nuisance. The defendants appealed.

Issue

In Rimmington’s case, the judge held that public nuisance continued to be an offence at common law and that Rimmington’s conduct amounted to public nuisance. The Court of Appeal upheld the decision and added that the contents of the letters unreasonably interfered with the rights of others. As to Goldstein, the jury was told that they could convict him if they thought he ought to have known of the real risk that his actions could cause nuisance. Goldstein also lost at the Court of Appeal.

Held

The House of Lords allowed the appeals and quashed both convictions. Public nuisance is committed when a person acts in a way not warranted by law or omits to discharge a legal duty, with the effect that the act or omission endangers the life, health, property or comfort of the public or obstructs the exercise of common rights. Many offences causing public nuisance are now covered by statutory provisions and should be prosecuted thus, due to the primacy of statute over common law (unless there is good reason to resort to common law; avoidance of time limits would not normally be good enough). Secondly, private nuisance could not become public nuisance simply because it is one in a series of acts; causing injury to several different people rather than to the community as whole is not public nuisance, regardless of how persistent the actions are. Thirdly, the mens rea for public nuisance is that the defendant knew or ought to have known the consequences of his action or omission. Goldstein never intended the escape of the salt from the envelope nor could he have known that it would happen (it would have destroyed his joke). It is the foreseeability of an unintended escape, and not the foreseeable consequence of salt escaping, that matters.


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