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When the defendent makes a direct threat towards the claimant, which puts him in reasonable fear of immediate physical contact placed upon his body, it is an assault.

Now for a more detailed description...

In the wonderful world of criminal law the word assault can mean a wide range of crimes against a person. In the law of tort however it has only one meaning which is the threat of an attack on the claimant. For an act to count as an assault it has to be intentional, unlawful, without consent by the claimant, and not as a form of self-defence. Most cases of assault are usually alongside a case of battery, as that is the result if the defendant is true to his threat.

Some cases of assault feature obvious threats such as fist clenching and screaming in somebodies face. However not all assaults are as clear.

The threat must be immediate.

The threatening act made by the defendant will not count as an assault, unless the act places the claimant in reasonable expectation of physical contact. This is shown in the case of Thomas v NUM.

Thomas v National Union of Mineworkers (Source Case) - Thomas, the claimant, was a miner who continued to go to work during the miners’ strike, which was organised by the National Union of Miners, the defendant. Thomas and other workers were ‘bussed’ into work each day through an aggressive crowd of pickets who made violent gestures and shouted threats to those on the bus, including Thomas. The pickets were held back by police, and he was protected by the bus anyway. The threats made by the picketers could therefore not be carried out, resulting in no assault against Thomas.

If the defendant makes an immediate threat towards the claimant, but cannot carry out the action due to a third party stepping in as a barrier, the defendant may still be liable for assault.

Stephens v Myers - Stephens, the claimant, was a chairman at a parish council meeting. LIke normal parish meetings there was a disruptive fellow who got a little angry, called Myers. It became so heated that everone voted to kick Myers out. Myers was very upset by this and said he would rather "pull Stephens from his chair than be expelled", whilst walking towards him fist-clenched. Others at the meeting managed to restrain him from reachng Stephens. It was held that if he had not been restrained he would have carried out the act, so Myers was found liable for assault on the basis that he was advancing towards Stephens with intent of harming him/beating him to death with his chair.

It is not necessary for the claimant to actually experience fear, but it must be proved a reasonable man would expect immediate contact.

Can words alone count as assault?

A physical action, such as fist-shaking, may be accompanied by words. Words can have an enhancing effect upon the threat "I'm going to kick the crap out of you" makes a creepy guy down a dark alley somewhat more intimidating. They can also have a negating effect by suggesting the assault will not happen.

Turberville v Savage - Back in 1669 when people carried swords, the defendant put his hand on his sword (that's what she said!?) and stated if "T'were not for assize time, I would not take such language from you". The victim said he was fearful of being attacked, but the judge held that the defendant clearly stated he wouldnt, so there was no assault. Maybe Savage wasn't so savage after all...

"But what about words alone?" I hear you cry. It is not fully decided whether words can or cannot count as assault on their own. In R v Meade it was said in obiter (a comment by the judge when giving reasons for the verdict), that 'no words or singing are equivalent to assault'. However in R v Wilson the defendant was found guilty of assault when he said "get out the knives".

R v Ireland (Source Case) - In this case a stalker breathed heavily down the telephone, yet did not speak. The House of Lords held that silence is a threat if the defendant intended to cause fear, and it is assault if the claimant fears it would be carried out in the very near future, i.e a couple of minutes. Lord Steyn added that 'the proposition... that words cannot suffice is unrealistic and indefensible.. (the phone caller) intends his silence to cause fear and intimidation.'

If words alone cannot be assault, is it possible to assault a blind person? Not allowing words to count as an assault seems illogical, both words and physical threats can create fear. Critics beleve that the courts would allow words alone to be an assault, it's just that a case hasn't come up yet.

Obstruction is not an assault, if not intimidating.

For an assault to occur it is generally accepted that the defendant must perform some form of active behaviour.

Innes v Wylie - A policeman stood at the door of a building and his body blocked the claimant from entering. The passive state was not threatening and could not harm the claimant in any way. The defendant was not liable.

Therefore if a defendant is active, and threatening, the act can be counted as an assault.

Read v Coker (Source Case) - The claimant owed rent money to the defendant. When the claimant was asked to leave he refused. The defendant asked three employees to see him off the premises. They surrounded the claimant, rolled up their sleeves and said if he did not leave they would break his neck. This was an assault.

The intentions of the defendant

The defendant's behaviour must lead the claimant to believe an application of force is going to be used against him, even if it is not. This belief must be genuine. Even if the belief is not what a reasonable man would believe, the courts typically assume it to be genuine. As mentioned earlier, fear is not a requirement.

Blake v Barnard - In this case the defendant pulled a gun on the claimant. The defendant knew it wasnt loaded but the claimant did not. The claimant had reasonable belief of getting shot to death, therefore there was an assault.

Waheeey! That's pretty much it for assault, so get charged up to go over to the next page on battery.