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Public Order Offences

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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 the offenses 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.


s1 Public Order Act 1986 – Riot

Riot is the most serious offence under 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.

 s2 Public Order Act 1986 – Violent Disorder

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.

 s3 Public Order Act 1986 -Affray

A person is guilty 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.

s4(1) Public Order Act 1986 – Fear or Provocation of Violence

A person will be guilty under this section if he uses 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.

s4A Public Order Act 1986 – Harassment, Alarm or Distress with Intent

A person must act 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.

s5 Public Order Act 1986 – Disorderly Behaviour

An offence is committed if a person uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or disorderly behaviour within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress as a result.  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 Act

Under s91 of the Criminal Justice Act 1967 it is an offence to be drunk and disorderly in a public place and 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.

s11-14 & 16 Public Order Act 1986 – Public Processions and the Right to Protest

Controversial laws exist regulating 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’.

Possession of an Offensive Weapon

Under s1 of the Prevention of Crime Act 1953, it is an offence to carry an offensive weapon in a public place unless you have lawful authority for it (eg a police officer with a baton) or a reasonable excuse (eg it was for use at work). If a defence of lawful authority or reasonable excuse is put forward, it is up to the offender to prove their defence on the balance of probabilities. Mere forgetfulness cannot amount to a reasonable excuse although the courts will take this into account.
The prosecution must prove that the item was either designed as an offensive weapon (eg a knuckleduster) or that the offender had it with him for an offensive purpose. The prosecution must also show that the offender had the item in his possession and that they had knowledge of that possession.
These offences are treated very seriously by the courts and there is a real risk of receiving a prison sentence particularly if the weapon was used produced or used to threaten someone. The maximum sentence available in the magistates’ court is 6 months imprisonment or 4 years in the crown court.

Possession of a Bladed Article

Section 139 Criminal Justice Act 1988 prohibits carrying a bladed article in a public place without good reason or lawful authority. This applies to any bladed article other than a folding pocket knife with a blade of 3” or less in length so, it would, for example, be unlawful to have a blunt butter knife in a public place. A lock knife will always be unlawful regardless of the length of the blade.
The prosecution must prove that the offender had the item with him in a public place and that he knew he had it in his possession. Forgetfulness of possession will not amount to a good reason although it is something that the courts will take into account.
As with the law on offensive weapons, once a defence of lawful authority/good reason is raised, the burden of proof lies on the defendant to prove lawful authority/reasonable excuse to the civil standard of proof (ie on the balance of probabilities).

These offences are treated very seriously and often result in prison sentences of up to 6 months in the magistrates court and 4 years in the crown court.

Aggravated Possession of Offensive Weapons or Bladed Articles

If a person:
• Has a bladed article or an offensive weapon in a public place or on school premises, and
• They intentionally threaten someone with it in a manner where there is an immediate risk of serious physical harm to that person
If a person over the age of 16 years is convicted of the aggravated offence, the court must impose a minimum sentence of 6 months imprisonment (for a person of 18 years and over) or 4 months detention (for a person between the ages of 16 and under 18 years), unless there are circumstances which would make it unjust to do so.

Possession of an Offensive Weapon/Bladed Article on School Premises

It is an offence under s139A of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 to have, without good reason or lawful authority, an offensive weapon or a bladed article on school premises.  The definition of school premises extends to the surrounding playing fields and the offence can be committed when the school is closed.

Sporting offences

Broadly speaking, hooliganism is a term used to describe disorderly, aggressive or violent behaviour carried out by spectators at sporting events, although this relates almost exclusively to football matches.
The Football Offences Act 1991 covers offences specifically committed within football stadia before, during and after matches. The Act also created specific offences, such as:
Throwing missiles onto pitches
Participating in indecent or racist chanting
Going onto the pitch without legal authority

Convictions for football-related offences and/or a history of violence can result in the court issuing a football banning order. The order bans the person in question from attending matches for a set period of time, anything between three and 10 years, both at home and abroad. This means they will have to surrender their passport ahead of an international fixture.
Individuals are not given banning orders solely on the basis of minor convictions, such as alcohol-related offences, and it must be proved that issuing the order will prevent them from committing any further football-related offences.
Orders can be customised to deal with specific behaviour patterns. Breaching an order is a criminal offence and can result in a maximum six-month prison sentence.