Public nuisance—general principles

The following Environment practice note provides comprehensive and up to date legal information covering:

  • Public nuisance—general principles
  • Public nuisance
  • Who can bring an action?
  • Who can be sued?
  • Overlap with statutory nuisance
  • Overlap with private nuisance
  • Remedies
  • Law Commission recommendations for reform of public nuisance

Public nuisance—general principles

Public nuisance

Public nuisance involves a nuisance being carried out, which affects a section of the general public. It has been defined as:

'acts or omissions of the defendant that materially affect the reasonable comfort and convenience of life of a class of Her Majesty's subjects' (Attorney General v PYA Quarries [1957] 1 All ER 894).

In a public nuisance case, it is important to show that the degree of interference is more than just slight or trivial. Interference doesn't necessarily mean actual damage—material annoyance or irritation could be sufficient.

It is also necessary to show that the effect of the public nuisance is sufficiently widespread enough and this is decided on a case by case basis—see Attorney General v Hastings Corporation (1950) SJ 225 (not available in Lexis®Library), which held that the class of people affected can be small in certain circumstances.

A public nuisance is primarily a crime but where an individual suffers 'special damage' (which can include pure economic loss) beyond that suffered by the public generally, they will have a claim in tort.

A public nuisance can be a one-off event, rather than a continuing state of affairs (as in private nuisance), and the type of acts giving rise to public nuisance claims can be varied, including 'a multitude of sins, great and small' (per Lord Denning), such as:

  1. a

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