An ex-boyfriend's act of cutting off a girl's ponytail could be interpreted as an offence of assault occasioning actual bodily harm, the High Court ruled yesterday.
In the first case of its kind, two eminent judges said hair could be regarded as a person's "crowning glory" - and magistrates at Dudley were wrong when they held that Michael Ross Smith (21) had no case to answer.
For almost an hour the judges discussed, among other things, what hair means to a woman - and whether its unwanted removal with a pair of kitchen scissors could amount to actual bodily harm.
Then they allowed an appeal by the Director of Public Prosecutions and ruled the magistrates erred in law when, in June last year, they acquitted Smith, of Worcester Road, Netherton, Dudley.
The judges heard the unwanted haircut occurred in April last year. Smith and Miss Michelle Tether, his ex-partner, started a relationship five years ago.
They broke up on two occasions. On April 11, weeks before her 21st birthday, Miss Tether went to Smith's home and up to his bedroom where he was asleep.
When she woke him up, he pushed her down on the bed, produced the kitchen scissors, sat on top of her and cut off her ponytail and hair from the top of her head without her consent, the judges were told.
Yesterday Sir Igor Judge, president of the Queen's Bench Division of the High Court, and Mr Justice Cresswell ruled the magistrates had gone wrong in law and must continue hearing the prosecution case against Smith.
They rejected arguments that the hair growing out of a person's head was by its nature dead and generally no bodily harm could be caused by its removal.
Mr Justice Cresswell said: "To a woman, her hair is a vitally important part of her body. Where a significant portion of a woman's hair is cut off without her consent this is a serious matter - not trivial or insignificant - amounting to bodily harm."
Sir Igor agreed, saying: "Whether it is alive beneath the surface of the skin or dead tissue above the surface of the skin, the hair is part of the human body.
It is intrinsic to each individual and the identity of each individual, although that is not essential to my decision.
"I note that an individual's hair is relevant to his or her autonomy. Some regard it as their crowning glory - admirers may so regard it in the object of their affections.
"Even if medically and scientifically speaking hair above the surface of the scalp is no more than dead tissue it remains part of the body and is attached to it.
"While it is so attached it, in my judgment, falls within the meaning of 'bodily' in the phrase actual bodily harm. It is concerned with the body of the individual victim."
Refusing to convict Smith, the magistrates said he may well have "changed the appearance" of his victim, but there was no evidence to prove actual bodily harm, or psychiatric or psychological harm. The "essential element" of the offence, under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, was missing.
They said: "The cutting of Miss Tether's hair did constitute an assault, but there was no actual bodily harm as there was no bruising, bleeding or cutting of the skin."
Miss Tether was distressed following the loss of her shoulder-length hair, but that was an emotion which could not of itself amount to bodily harm. Smith may well have been guilty of ordinary common assault, but he had not been charged with that.
But in the High Court the magistrates' decision was overturned after Timothy Green, appearing for the DPP, successfully argued: "Cutting someone's hair without their consent is obviously an assault and naturally caused bodily harm."
The ordinary meaning of bodily harm included "any hurt or injury calculated to interfere with the health or comfort of the victim", so long as it was not trivial or insignificant. There was no need to cause physical pain to cause actual bodily harm.
George Fairburn, appearing for Smith, said hair may have importance from the point of view of vanity, and it might be something which helped to identify a person's lifestyle and personality - "but that should not allow such importance to be attached to it in the way injury to another part of the body might".