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We have grouped together a number of public order type offences. Many of the offences sound very similar but vary enormously in terms of their seriousness and the court’s sentencing powers. If you are facing any of these offences set out on this page you should seek legal advice as soon as possible. We can offer free representation at the police station and a free initial telephone consultation to discuss your case and advise you of any defences you may have.
Riot falls under section 1 of the Public Order Act 1986. A riot is defined as where 12 or more people acting with ‘common purpose’ use or threaten violence. Their behaviour must have the effect that an average person would be afraid that violence would be used against them. These cases can only be heard in the crown court and if convicted, they routinely carry a substantial prison sentence up to a maximum of 10 years.
Under section 2 of the Public Order Act 1986, an offence of violent disorder is committed where 3 or more people present together use or threaten unlawful violence and the conduct of them (taken together) would cause a reasonably ‘firm’ person to fear for their personal safety. Violent disorder is viewed very seriously by the courts and although they can be heard in the magistrates court or the crown court , they are invariably sent to the crown court where the maximum sentence is 5 years imprisonment.
A person will be guilty of an offence of affray if they use or threaten unlawful violence towards another person and their conduct is such that an average person present at the scene would have feared for their safety. There does not have to be a common purpose and affray is commonly charged where there has been a fight and it is not practical to charge with assault. Affray cases may be heard in the magistrates’ and crown court, and the maximum sentence is 3 years imprisonment.
Fear or Provocation of Violence
A person will be guilty of an offence under this section 4 (1) Public Disorder Act 1986 if they use threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour (which may include writing or other visible representation) towards another with the intention of causing the other person to believe that unlawful violence would be used against them. This offence carries a maximum sentence of 6 months imprisonment or a fine up to £5000.
If the offence is racially or religiously aggravated the offence carries a maximum sentence of 6 months imprisonment in the magistrates court and up to 2 years in the crown court.
Harassment, Alarm or Distress with Intent
Under section 4A Public Order Act 1986, an offence is committed if a person acts in a way which is abusive, threatening or insulting and intend to cause harassment, alarm or distress to another person. The offence can be committed in a public or a private place but no offence occurs if both the offender and the complainant are inside a dwelling. The maximum sentence is 6 months imprisonment or a fine up to £5000.
Offences which are racially or religiously aggravated may attract a sentence of up to 2 years imprisonment in the crown court.
If a person uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress, an offence is committed under section 5 Public Order Act 1986. A general defence of the behaviour being reasonable in the circumstances may be available to the defendant. This offence carries a maximum penalty of a £1000 fine. Where the offence is racially or religiously aggravated the fine may be increased up to a maximum of £2500.
Drunk and Disorderly
Under section 91 Criminal Justice Act 1967, it is an offence to be drunk and disorderly in a public place. The prosecution must prove all three elements of the offence. An example of disorderly behaviour would be shouting and causing a disturbance in the street. Where someone is charged with being drunk and disorderly, it is commonplace for the police to keep someone in custody overnight and place them before the court the next morning where they will usually receive a fine.
Public Processions and the Right to Protest
Controversial laws exist under sections 11 – 14 & 16 of the Public Order Act 1986 which regulate the gathering of individuals in large groups in public places. Some of these have faced criticism in recent years, as they give senior police officers sweeping powers in respect of the planning of peaceful protest. This area of law includes the right of police to impose conditions on processions and assemblies, and even prohibit them, ‘to prevent serious public disorder’.