Collins v Wilcock

English Criminal Law

Collins v Wilcock
‘Parisian Life’ by Juan Luna

Most likely uncertain to many members of the general public, the difference between assault and battery are markedly different, as was established in a case involving a uniformed policewoman and a suspected prostitute, judged to be loitering for the purposes of unlawful solicitation.

In the summer of 1982, the now respondent was driving in her patrol car when herself and her colleague observed what appeared to be two prostitutes standing around in the street whilst conversing with two men for what was determined to be a negotiation of solicitation, upon which the respondent requested that the now appellant enter the car so they could question her, to which the appellant lawfully refused and proceeded to walk away.

It was at this point that the respondent left the vehicle and attempted to question the appellant again while in pursuit, to which the appellant told her unceremoniously to ‘fuck off’, a statement that caused the respondent to physically grab the appellant by the forearm so as to restrain her from walking further, and which in turn resulted in the appellant shouting again ‘just fuck off copper’ and scratching the respondent’s forearm with her fingernails; an action that led to the appellant’s arrest and subsequent charge of assaulting a police officer in the line of duty.

Having contended the offence before the then Metropolitan Stipendiary Magistrate presiding in the Marylebone office, London, the appellant argued that the respondent was at the time of her physical exertion, acting beyond the scope of her police powers, while the respondent countered that she had acted lawfully under the Street Offences Act 1959, in which s. 1(1) which read that:

“It shall be an offence for a common prostitute to loiter or solicit in a street or public place for the purpose of prostitution.”

And s. 3, which further reads that:

“A constable may arrest without warrant anyone he finds in a street or public place and suspects, with reasonable cause, to be committing an offence under this section.”

To which the magistrate held the appellant guilty of the offence of assault, and fined her £50 under s. 51(1) of the Police Act 1964 while holding that:

“[I]n the circumstances the placing of her hand on [the defendant’s] arm to restrain her from moving away, yet again, was within her duty and was not unreasonable.”

A decision which the appellant challenged in the High Court, holding as before that the respondent had acted unlawfully when attempting to deny the appellant her freedom to leave when questioned.

Here, the court first looked to Cole v Turner, in which the Court of the Kings Bench had held that:

“The least touching of another is battery.”

Which was a principle later expanded upon in William Blackstone’s ‘Commentaries on the Laws of England’ (1830), in which it was stated clearly that:

“[T]he law cannot draw the line between different degrees of violence, and therefore totally prohibits the first and lowest stage of it; every man’s person being scared, and no other having a right to meddle with it, in any the slightest manner.”

And so noting that assault is an act that causes another person to ‘apprehend the infliction of immediate unlawful force’ upon them, battery requires the ‘actual infliction of unlawful force’, and so on this occasion the court held that when attempting to restrain the appellant, the respondent had acted outside her official powers when there had in that instance, been no grounds for any arrest, but instead the subjective compulsion to prevent the appellant from exercising her civil rights through the use of battery, thus the appeal was upheld, while the court held that:

“[E]verybody is protected not only against physical injury but against any form of physical molestation” 

And that: 

“[R]easonable force may be used in self-defence or for the prevention of crime.”

Author: Neil Egan-Ronayne

Legal Consultant, Author and Foodie...

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