Public nuisance

Public nuisance is wider in its application than private nuisance.

Public nuisance is wider in its application than private nuisance. Public nuisance has been defined as 'something which affects a reasonable class of Her Majesty's citizens materially or in the reasonable comfort and convenience of life'.

The courts have determined that a substantial class of people must be affected in order for an action to be commenced.  In Attorney General v PYA Quarries (1957) Lord Denning put the matter very well when he said:  "The classic statement of the difference is that a public nuisance affects Her Majesty's subjects generally, whereas a private nuisance only affects particular individuals."

He went on to say:  "that a public nuisance is a nuisance which is so widespread in its range or so indiscriminate in its effect that it would not be reasonable to expect one person to take proceedings on his own responsibility to put a stop to it, but that it should be taken on the responsibility of the community at large."

Public nuisance is a tort as well as a crime and arises when the injured party is a member of a class of the neighbourhood or community affected by the public nuisance. Whereas, private nuisance is suffered by individuals.

It also exists as a tort but it is important to realise that it is primarily a crime in the sense that it is prosecuted by the Attorney General and this reflects the involvement of the public or a section of it. An example of a public nuisance might be the unauthorised and unreasonable use of the highway or the obstruction of the highway, but this may well need to be something substantial or significant. As a tort, the claimant will need to demonstrate that they have suffered loss or damage beyond that suffered by other members of the public.

Many things have been the subject of claims in public nuisance. In  R. v Ong [2000] the public nuisance included a betting scam in which the floodlights at a Premier Division football match between Charlton Athletic and Liverpool were to be sabotaged. Such actions were inherently dangerous to the thousands within the football stadium. In R v Madden (1975) the defendant had telephoned a bomb hoax to a steel works. As a result the steel works’ business was disrupted for about an hour. James LJ. whilst accepting that hoax telephone calls falsely alleging that explosives had been planted could amount to an offence of public nuisance, took the view that the few employees present on site were not a sufficiently wide class of the public.

The cases of R v Ruffell (1991) and R v Shorrock (1994) were unusual in that they involved the prosecution of the organisers of "acid house" parties. The parties had been held at night in fields adjacent to residential property. Liability in public nuisance was allowed on the basis that they knew, or ought to have known, that there was a real risk of creating the sort of nuisance that in fact occurred. The organisers could hardly have not known about the major traffic disruption and the noise of the music, and the next day’s clean up operation.

A claimant who succeeds in their claim for public nuisance may seek remedies including damages and an injunction.

Describe and illustrate the tort of public nuisance

Aqa a2 law student unit guide: criminal law (offences against property) and law of tort: unit 4 (sections a & b) (aqa a2 law student guide) [paperback]

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