Public nuisance: a common law crime

What is public nuisance?

Public nuisance is traditionally a criminal offence, defined as an unlawful act or omission which endangers or interferes with the lives, comfort, property or common rights of the general public. Though a criminal offence, a public nuisance can also give rise to a civil claim for damages.

A public nuisance is conduct, behaviour, (or lack thereof), where injury, loss or damage is suffered by the local community as a result. Court proceedings for public nuisances are generally instigated by local authorities through the Magistrates’ Court or the Crown Court. On conviction, the defendant can be ordered to pay a fine and/or receive a prison sentence.

Public nuisances can include:

  • Obstructing the highway (everyday obstructions such as road repairs and scaffolding are, however, lawful if they are reasonable and do not occur for an excessive time).
  • Dust emanating from factories.
  • Noise from brothels.
  • Sewage leaking into rivers.

Many public nuisances cause damage to individuals and businesses. In those cases, a claimant can bring civil proceedings for damages.

Who are the ‘public’ for a successful public nuisance prosecution?

Many types of commercial operations are at risk of committing a public nuisance, but identifying the public affected is not always straightforward. For example, in a 1957 case, a quarry produced noise, dirt and vibrations which affected the neighbourhood. The court had to decide if this was a private nuisance which only affected some residents; or a public nuisance affecting all Her Majesty’s subjects in the area.

An injunction was ultimately granted to stop the quarry from causing a public nuisance.

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For more information on:

  • Knowledge of the nuisance
  • Developments in the law
  • Statutory nuisance