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R v Ireland and Burstow

April 02, 2024
Micheal James

Jurisdiction / Tag(s): UK Law

Introduction to R v Ireland and Burstow

R v Ireland and Burstow (1997) is a landmark case decided by the House of Lords, the highest court in the United Kingdom at the time. This case addressed two separate appeals that significantly impacted the legal understanding of assault and grievous bodily harm (GBH) in England and Wales.

Facts of the Cases

The case involved two separate appeals:

  • R v Ireland: Ireland was accused of assault through a series of silent and menacing phone calls made to his former partner.
  • R v Burstow: Burstow had engaged in a lengthy campaign of harassment against his ex-girlfriend, including stalking, following, and making threats. This harassment resulted in the victim suffering from severe depression. Both Ireland and Burstow were convicted of their respective offenses. However, they appealed their convictions, raising crucial legal questions.

Legal Issues

The case centered on two main legal issues:

  1. Assault: Could silent phone calls constitute an assault under English law? Prior case law generally required some form of act or threat causing apprehension of immediate violence.
  2. Grievous Bodily Harm (GBH): Could psychiatric illness resulting from harassment be considered GBH for legal purposes? Traditionally, GBH was understood as physical harm.


The House of Lords delivered a significant judgment, expanding the scope of both assault and GBH. They ruled that:

  • Silent phone calls: Repeated silent calls of a menacing nature could indeed constitute an assault, provided they caused the victim to apprehend immediate and unlawful violence.
  • Psychiatric Illness as GBH: Psychiatric illness caused by a crime could be considered GBH, provided it was more than just transient or trivial.


The court’s reasoning focused on the evolving nature of assault and the need to protect individuals from threats that cause fear of imminent violence. In the case of silent calls, the court acknowledged that the fear could be just as real, even in the absence of spoken threats. Regarding GBH, the court recognized that psychological harm could be just as severe and debilitating as physical injuries.


R v Ireland and Burstow holds significant weight in English and Welsh criminal law. The case broadened the definitions of assault and GBH. It established that psychological harm caused by harassment or threats could be considered criminal offenses. This broader interpretation strengthens the law’s ability to protect individuals from a wider range of harmful behaviors.


R v Ireland and Burstow stands as a landmark case, expanding the scope of assault and GBH in English and Welsh law. The case emphasizes the importance of protecting individuals from not only physical violence but also psychological harm. It serves as a reminder that the law must adapt to evolving forms of criminal behavior.

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